Woebot on the one with a couple essential mixes, first tackling Detroit1 techno's winding history before jumping into some Chicago house mayhem.2 With a little luck, we'll get a New York one — Nu Groove/Strictly Rhythm/Fourth Floor bizzness in full effect — in the near future. It being 3/13 I would have liked to jump into a Detroit selection myself — there's been plenty of the skewed electronic jazz of late-nineties Anthony Shakir, Carl Craig and Stacey Pullen bumping through the Parallax Room as of late — but the perfectionist in me is still tweaking that full-length feature at the moment. For now, check Woebot's mix for a true sonic journey...
There were a whole bunch of startling omissions — where was Alter Ego/Sensorama, Luke Vibert/Wagon Christ, Susumu Yokota (indeed all of Japan for that matter), early Black Dog and Plaid's Mbuki Mvuki- and figures like Biosphere and Deep Space Network, whose absence wasn't necessarily surprising, but certainly disappointing. The list seemed to miss the point of the whole endeavor! But then Pitchfork never truly understood electronic music, did they?
I had a similar experience reading FACT Magazine's The 50 Best Trip-Hop Albums Of All Time...6 a sort of wow, this all meant something totally different to me back then effect. Now I love FACT — don't get me wrong — and it was a pleasure to read (plus I was thrilled with the #1 pick — one of my top 5 albums in any genre). But there were a couple things that started to get to me after awhile. The apologetic/embarrassed tone for one, like this music is somehow a guilty pleasure (I mean, we're only talking about some of the most crucial records of the decade here).
Embarrassment over the trip hop tag itself, which I do remember being a common gripe even at the time (and one that I never quite understood),7 and apologetic that a bunch of corny chill out artists came riding its coattails into the mainstream and supposedly de-fanged the music in the process. I don't know that I've ever bought that narrative.
First off, when has the lackluster output of bandwagon artists ever truly discredited what made a sound exciting in the first place? Surely it gets tiresome in the moment, hearing all these lame imitations, but it's been twenty years now! There's been plenty of time to cleanse the palette and re-focus. Secondly, the chill out thing was a totally different project, distinct from trip hop's m/o even as it often operated within it: Kruder & Dorfmeister and Air touched the sublime in their blissed out blunted beats. It was in the concentric circles of the imitator that the flavor was lost... that's when it became lifestyle music for young professionals and scenesters.
That it started cropping up in Zach Braff movies is evidence enough. There was certainly some overlap between the two — no more than with reggae or dub though (far less, truth be told) — but the media ran with that narrative and suddenly there was no room for a record like Pre-Millenium Tension. Tricky had lost it. And yet the record was flush with a deeply strange, skewed b-boy blues that was anything but easy listening and remained true to the roots-n-future warped downbeat vision that lie at trip hop's beating heart ever since Smith & Mighty remixed Mark Stewart.
In truth, the jagged underbelly of nineties hip hop and r&b's glistening phantasmagorias had always had more in common with trip hop than any of the chill out brigade ever could hope to. Think of Timbaland sampling Portishead in Ginuwine's G.Thang or weaving Björk into the remix for Missy Elliott's Hit 'Em Wit Da Hee. Coming from the other side of the divide, picture Tricky & Laveda Davis' Devils Helper and Massive Attack's Lately, dusted r&b sides ensconced in trip hop clothing. Or picture even Mélaaz and Les Nubians' awesome Princesses Nubiennes, showing there was no divide all along...
My second big complaint was the creeping sense that there was just too much zaniness in the list... and a little goes a long way. Things that I only ever came across on compilations and never ventured any further. Even at the time a lot of that stuff came to be as big a turn off as the chill out stuff, with a bad aftertaste to boot, like it was all some big inside joke between people who thought they were better than the music. A dead end if there ever was one.
The last thing that threw me was the approach of limiting the list to one record per artist. I think that's a mistake when talking genres/scenes, because certain artists nearly always manage to define the sound and transcend their surroundings. One couldn't imagine a sixties rock list that limited The Beatles to a single record. Then why trip hop, when there were some obvious movers and shakers in the mix from day one?
I don't want to get bogged down in specifics at the moment — reason enough, I'd been planning to do an in-depth series on trip hop in the near future — but right off the bat I can say that the first three Massive Attack LPs put the whole scene in stark relief, signposting the whole project. Without them, you're missing something...
It always struck me as an apposite description of the music, which was the bastard offspring of hip hop and soundsystem culture. Trip as in staggering, the beat dragging along, also as in tripping out, psychedelic b-boy music for real.
I recently came across this riotous, blazing mix1 by Woebot that he terms this grungey, mutated R'n'B-derived sound. In a weird bit of synchronicity I've been crossing a similar terrain lately. In truth, it's a place where I dwell much of the time.
I've recently been ruminating on this intersection between post punk, trip hop and the blues that's sort of tangentially related to some of the shapes he throws in this mix. This is partially down to working my way through A Cracked Jewel Case2 — long stretches of which run parallel to my own fascinations and obsessions in sound — but also it's a very definite strand of sound that's pretty central to my own musical make up.
In fact, I've long had a loose selection of tracks rolling around that all occupy a similar space in my mind and thought, Why not throw them all together in a mix and see what happens? The end result is a bit of a low slung, moody affair... but then I wouldn't have it any other way.
Two Steps From The Blues
Skip JamesCypress Grove BluesYazoo
We start out deep down in the Mississippi Delta, way back in 1931, with Skip James and some of the mightiest blues ever laid down. This is an ancient, desolate sound: loneliness captured on wax. There's this haunting character to James' vocals — his playing too — that really puts you in the room with him.
Fast-forward 64 years and Dirty South enters the popular consciousness. This paranoid crawl through shadowy imagery of black helicopters, looming fences and the security state features state of the art production from Organized Noise, yet there's an unmistakable grit here that ties everything back to the Delta.
DrugsBrain On DrugsKraked
Psychedelic soul from the turn of the century. Various players from the contemporary touring lineup of Parliament/Funkadelic get down in the studio with this strange slab of hallucinatory sprawl. In many ways, this is like the midpoint between SA-RA and Moodymann. There was even an excellent deep house remix of this tune on a 12" by French duo Château Flight.
Mark Stewart + MaffiaSurvivalMute
The massive geometric rhythm here has always reminded me of the desolate, wide-open spaces of certain old electric blues records. I think the Maffia certainly do have a bit of the blues in them — filtered through an angular, cyberpunk shaped prism, but there nonetheless — and their early recordings as the Sugar Hill house band bear this out. See also No Wave and Cabaret Voltaire.
Martina Topley-BirdToo Tough To DieIndependiente
Taken from her solo debut after parting ways with Tricky. Quixotic is of a piece with Tricky Kid's earlier records — thoroughly imbued as they were with Martina's indelible presence — and this track in particular makes the strong blues nature of her microphone presence explicit. Ensconced within the grinding rhythms of this gnarled bit of modern blues, she seems as comfortable in the form as a Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday.
Dr. JohnBlack Widow SpiderATCO
Martina's voodoo-steeped soul segues into the New Orleans swamp-blues of Dr. John, from sophomore album Babylon. In his autobiography, Under A Hoodoo Moon, Dr. John states We were trying to get into something... with visions of the end of the world — as if Hieronymus Bosch had cut an album.3
The first half of Angels With Dirty Faces is among the densest, most atmospheric music in Tricky's oeuvre, rivaling even the Nearly God record and his collaboration with the Gravediggaz on The Hell EP. Much of the best trip hop is suffused with the spectre of the blues, and this rolling monster of a track — with that nagging looped guitar figure — is positively drenched in it.
Howlin' WolfWho's Been Talkin'Chess
This is likely my favorite blues song bar none, taken from my most treasured blues LP of all time by my absolute favorite bluesman. That endless, tumbling rhythm seems to predict machine music in its precise repetition, while its stark shapes and spooked-out mood prefigure both post punk and trip hop's modus operandi, respectively. As usual, Wolf himself tears through it all like a man possessed.
TerranovaCath CoffeySweet Bitter LoveCopasetik
The geometric rhythms in evidence here throw similar shadows, only now as if seen through a blurred lens. Sweet Bitter Love, taken from Terranova's first album, is of a piece with their earlier Tokyo Tower record. The title track and its b-side Clone seemed to encompass jazz, blues and Krautrock in one stroke while remaining trip hop through and through. Here, the sumptuous blues tone of Cath Coffey's voice inhabits the bleak soundscape with a gravity all her own.
Gil Scott-HeronMe And The DevilXL
This is the lead single from Gil Scott-Heron's final record, and it hits you in the chest straight out the gate with it's apocalyptic tone and cinematic force. The deep, smooth croon of his seventies records has grown into the rough and ragged voice of a man who's seen one thing too many — this is 21st century blues.
Dark ComedyIn My HomePoussez!
The second Dark Comedy record, from 2005, just might be my favorite thing Kenny Larkin has ever done. This is deep and moody electronic blues from Detroit, a primal swamp of a record with more than a dose a black humor to it... made all the more unsettling in its juxtaposition with dead-serious subject matter on the flipside. In My Home recounts an episode around the time of his Metaphor LP — ten years earlier — when he was shot in his home during an attempted robbery.
Ray CharlesIt's All RightAtlantic
The original soul man's second album, and a true masterpiece of piano-laced rhythm & blues. This one's of a piece with the Howlin' Wolf selection above as some of my favorite blues music ever, with Charles here in the process of shaping it into what would soon become soul music. The Raelettes' exquisite backing vocals haunt this track, the dense atmosphere of which evokes the same sense of dread one might expect in a killer trip hop cut some 35 years later.
Tom WaitsClap HandsIsland
L.A.'s odd man out, this is the second in Waits' trilogy of avant garde eighties records. This tune always stayed with me, its spooked chords unfold over rolling percussion that sounds as if it were played out on hollow bones, the man's raspy croon smack in the middle as he unfurls another one of his dead end backstreet tales. They all went to heaven in a little row boat, that line always gets me. Pure dread.
Bobby BlandI'll Take Care Of YouDuke
More spectral blues-bathed soul. A key record in that continuum, and a stone cold classic. This is another one of those tunes, where the atmosphere just swirls around you — encircling your entire field of vision — as Bland's piercing vocal climbs through its murky slow-motion organ runs. Later covered by Gil-Scott Heron in fine style on I'm New Here, the same record that houses Me And The Devil.
Otis RushMy Love Will Never Die Take UnknownVarèse Sarabande
Electric blues shot through with that same steely cold sense of mystery you'll find in Who's Been Talkin' and I'll Take Care Of You (indeed much of the downbeat blues music from this era is cloaked in it). Otis Rush is a giant vocal presence, his guitar figures hang there in suspended animation like glyphs on a brick wall. I'm always half expecting this song to show up in some Tarantino film.
Aretha FranklinThe Thrill Is Gone From Yesterday's KissAtlantic
Smoldering southern soul from the great Aretha Franklin. The swelling Hammond that shades into her piano's wraithlike progression, paired with backing vocals from The Sweet Inspirations — steeped in that same haunting flavor that The Raelettes lent so effortlessly — provide the perfect environment for Franklin's deep soul stylings. This has long been one of my key downbeat soul numbers. Indeed, in my mind this forms a loose tetralogy with Who's Been Talkin', It's All Right and I'll Take Care Of You, songs whose spectral ambience inform whole swathes of my taste in music.
The Jimi Hendrix ExperienceVoodoo ChileReprise
Supercharged rock-hard blues from Master Hendrix. From that first sustained note, bending into the heavy silence, this just builds and builds like a great flaming galleon adrift in slow motion across the night sky. Steve Winwood does serious damage here with his smoldering Hammond runs (glowing like embers in the darkness) as Hendrix's blazing guitar figures arc across the soundscape. The night I was born I swear the moon turned a fire red. Very likely indeed.
Jelly Roll MortonWinin' Boy Blues No. 2Rounder
Back in the early days of Napster, a good friend of mine offered to download a couple tunes for me (I didn't yet have access to that sort of thing at the time). My two requests were Soft Cell's Tainted Love and anything by Jelly Roll Morton. This is the tune that he turned up, and it stuck with me for years until I eventually tracked it down on volume four of this Library Of Congress set. To this day, it still knocks me out like it did the first time I heard it. That whimsical melody and Morton's rich croon — it's just perfection.
Was it last year that Studio !K7 held that poll in which people were asked to choose their top five DJ-Kicks mixes?1 This one was without a doubt my #1 pick,2 and it remains my second favorite mix CD of all time (hint: the first is from a different series on the same label).
For those who might not know, DJ-Kicks is a DJ mix series curated by Studio !K7 that gives marquee producers the opportunity to represent another side of their personality outside the studio and in the mix. Starting with an entry from C.J. Bolland in 1995 and continuing up to the present day with last week's Nina Kraviz excursion, it must be the longest running mix series ever.
A unique feature of DJ-Kicks is the fact that (nearly) every mix features an exclusive track worked up by the presenting DJ for inclusion in their mix (and concurrently released as a 12" single). Early on in the series, this track was constructed entirely from samples taken from the mix itself (a short-lived tradition, truth be told, lasting only for the three Detroit-themed mixes that rounded out the series' first phase of deep techno entries), but as the series continued the track would generally be an original work that seemed to spring from the spirit of the mix it was created for.
The Terranova entry emerged from the heart of the series' second phase, an excellent run of trip hop-flavored mixes, nestled between the likes of Kruder & Dorfmeister and Smith & Mighty. At the time, trip hop was a music I lived and breathed (a close second only to techno in my personal sonic pantheon), immersed as I was in records by Massive Attack, Bomb The Bass and Tricky. Then, one day in early 1998, this mix cropped up on display at the old Tower Records on El Cajon Blvd. I snapped it up immediately, purchased more or less blind on the basis of the Studio !K7 brand and a handful of names in the tracklist that I recognized.
I remember Woebot once describing the way a listener will often move from node to node when exploring music, further avenues opened with every path explored. Back in the day, mixes were like pressing the fast-forward button on that process: if you knew that you liked a handful of artists/tracks featured on a mix, then chances are you would discover at least as many more that you'd end up digging too.
This particular mix is a double fantasy of sorts: not only is every track phenomenal, but all avenues presented here intersect at steep tangents before veering off in nearly every direction. It opens with a seven song stretch of both styles of hop (from hip to the trip), veering left into a sequence of skewed techno and house, before finally returning home to the breaks to close out the set.
The spectre of post punk abstraction hangs heavy over everything here, gesturing back toward an era when Mark Stewart hooked up with Tackhead and the Death Comet Crew were in full swing: abstract sonic technicians putting the jagged edges of the city to wax. Tricky — trip hop's greatest auteur — had a similar affinity with post punk (from the well documented Mark Stewart connection on down).
This is the world of David Toop's Rap Attack, hard electro beats and concrete. Terranova inhabit this realm — they populate this mix with it, floor to ceiling — actually augmenting the base records with additional treatments and textures, stretching the sonic spectrum into every corner of the soundscape.
Standing in stark contrast to the pleasant lifestyle music that downtempo often devolved into when it would get lost in a sort of vaguely cool, chill out impulse, the dub chamber murk and grimy textures in evidence throughout this record operate on an alternate principle: once again, putting the jagged edges of the city to wax. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do trip hop.
The mix opens with one of the great Intro tracks of all time, a rumble of pure atmosphere as the sound of the city streets comes flooding in, a gentle conga rhythm tumbling out across the soundscape. Terranova, Terranova... doesn't that mean new land, right? Wow, that's beautiful. Dropping into Howie B.'s Five Days, a droning slab of mutant tech jazz from the Freezone 3 compilation. It chugs along like some clockwork reconstruction of bebop, the beat marked by muted drums and a horn tattoo jutting out from each measure. Distant tones sound off from beyond the droning soundscape, grinding synths rise like magma within the mix.
As if waking from a dream, it all collapses into reverb as a skeletal hip hop beat begins to take shape. Priest's Disorientation certainly lives up to its title, sounding as if it were constructed from a jumble of unstable elements: its wavering bassline and skittering beat come on like some ramshackle vision of Timbaland and SA-RA meeting for tea in Central Park. Apani B. Fly, Beans and Priest rhyme abstract to the max before everything collapses once again into a pool of pure echo.
A pounding slab of trip hop from Depth Charge, one of the grand architects of the form (and probably the most obvious influence on Terranova's own m.o.), starts to throb into view like an open wound. Sex, Sluts & Heaven Bordello Mix is the track, from the Legend Of The Golden Snake Version 2 10"3, bleeding wave upon wave of pressure into a cauldron of raw intensity.
The machine beats of DJ Spooky's Galactic Funk release the tension with an almost compulsive ramshackle funkiness. Spooky always seemed to catch a lot of flack for his endless theorizing and sometimes rambling approach to beat construction, but when the man was on, he was really on. Everyone knows the Sun Goddess sample, but it's the mind-blowing twisted Clavinet jam from The Politicians — a mere moment on in time on the original record, sampled and stretched to infinity here — that kicks this track into the fourth dimension. That's the good good, right there. Deep space sonics creep in and out of the funk from every which angle, before they ultimately overwhelm the beat and drag you into the deep black of space, distant sounds from the East creeping upon you.
It's East Flatbush Project's Tried By 12, that omnipresent underground hip hop record of the day, rocking an ill koto loop over the same Al Green break that fueled Timbaland's sampler around the same time. I'd rather be tried by twelve than carried by six. This record's instrumental was everywhere at the time (I even remember hearing it at a high school party the following summer). Sparse and clean, it drops in and out before you notice that the sun-glazed pulse of Peanut Butter Wolf's Run The Line has slipped upon you.
Rasco spits nasty rhymes over the smoothest of beats, sounding like he'll knock your block off with or without the slightest provocation. Swap the cut out for the first of the breakbeat tracks from the Stereo MC's' Ultimatum project, The New Birth sampling Devil's Claw. A sonic tundra built around the opening break from Patiently, this track serves as a bridge into the uptempo stretch of this mix, the stately strings from BFC's Please Stand By rising from the glacier's surface. The first of the early Carl Craig tracks here — both of which ride improbable breakbeats — this one shrouded in waves of mystical Prophet 600 synthesizer, timbre hovering somewhere between strings and organ.
BFC's widescreen techno drifts off into the horizon as the break drops out, voices intoning astrological signs into the great beyond. Patrick Pulsinger's Citylights Pt. IICity Of Starsigns, a scattershot astral jazz shuffle, shambles into view as if powered by some mutant machine's makeshift propulsion. Like Ian Simmonds' Man With No Thumbs, it staggers on an irregular fusion rhythm (quintessential tech jazz straining against the machines), before ultimately collapsing into the void.
Ladies & Gentlemen, one of 69's 4 Jazz Funk Classics4 (and the second of the Craig tracks here), picks up the thread with great churning strands of sequenced bass and a fast-forward Curtis Mayfield loop from the Superfly soundtrack. Terranova give you all eleven minutes of the track here, a generous move as it's one of the most sublime techno songs ever put to tape (on what was, at the time, an extremely hard to find record).
Structured as a multi-part modular groove whose main section drops out into a stone cold breakbeat breakdown — forlorn tones cry out ever gently — before those rolling bass sequences return stronger than ever, unfurling in great arcs toward the sky. Terranova close it out in striking fashion, with what must be a custom bit of nearly g-funk keyboard filigree twirling on and on into the sunset.
Backroom Productions steps in to give The Definition Of A Track. At the very least, this is definitive New York house, surely: Groovin' Without Doubt. The whole thing rides atop this massive bassline that seems to meander its way up and down the beat matrix, freewheeling and utterly unresolved. This groove segues into a passage in which the synth line from Silicon Soul's Who Needs Sleep Tonight is warped and threaded through The Octagon Man's Modern Funk Beats; both tunes seem made for each other once you hear them in this context. It lasts but a moment before the distant growling bass of Avenue A's ace remix of Terranova's epochal Tokyo Tower pulses into view.
This version has nothing whatsoever to do with the sublime original (that heavenly jam with one Manuel Göttsching, a tune which I've already mentioned here, and must return to again sometime for further discussion). It's the great lost big beat tune, tucked away on this mix as an exclusive (you can hear it unmixed on the double-vinyl companion to this CD). Industrial breaks klang, run at a half-speed, then shift gears into a beat of block-rocking proportions and back again, bridging the gap back into downbeat territory as I L.O.V.E. You drops the tempo down to a crawl with bass you feel in your chest.
DJ DSL's warped take on lovers rock finds him twisting a bit of Yellowman's Lost Mi Love to abstraction, all effects on overdrive. With a deformed roar, the dope downbeat of Ultimatum's second contribution Stop It! Stop It! Stop It! stalks its way across the soundscape, perhaps marred slightly by some creepy dude that's trying to push his luck with a lady. What's the deal? Still, it's but a moment before Terranova's masterful remix of the Jungle Brothers' Jungle Brother oozes into every corner of the soundscape on a massive Reese bassline and slow motion breakbeats.
If there's been anything that's elaborated on the sound that the Brothers themselves laid down on J. Beez Wit The Remedy, it's this remix, which leaves you wishing Terranova had been allowed to produce the entirety of Raw Deluxe. These mutant beats live up to that title and then some, in what must be one of the most uplifting slabs of hip hop ever put to wax. Those rude voodoo flutes swarm over everything!
The whole soundscape just hangs there, suspended, before being sucked to a pinpoint and morphing to the drop of buzzing bass from The Junkyard Band's The Word. Taking a stab at Reagan-era economic policy over a monster groove, this record just rolls out the speakers in an avalanche of percussion, bass locked in a furious dance with the MCs. This record, one of Def Jam's incursions into the D.C. go-go scene, boasts a compulsively three-dimensional soundscape, one that is continued in the Atmospheric Version of Spoonie Gee's Spoonie Rap, slipping into the mix transition practically unnoticed.
The bedrock rhythm, knocked out by a live band, sounds like a yet-even-more-fluid Remain In Light-era Talking Heads, while the party atmosphere, scratches, warped tones and effects come courtesy of its remix on Harlem Place, sounding like nothing so much as the tracking shot from Mean Streets where Harvey Keitel stumbles through the party and down the hall before collapsing on a cot in the back room, only here it all devolves into a deluge of sirens announcing the nightmare that is Terranova's DJ-Kicks/Contact — the track.
Contact is a warped, druggy take on 70's soundtrack music as seen through the cracked fun house mirror of hindsight: paranoia, conspiracy and malaise caught on celluloid, camera cutting a rakish angle through a deserted alley. I used to imagine some bleak Scorsese-esque movie (before I'd seen any, of course) or cop thriller playing out to the music. It certainly matches the visuals in films like The French Connection (parts I and II), Night Moves and The Parallax View, harboring a raw, churning intensity that puts an awful lot of imaginary soundtrack music to shame. If you come across the 12" single, don't hesitate, as it also offers up an alternate version on the flipside5 called Contact Lezlie, a further dive into the dirty shadows.
It's worth reflecting that the prevailing mood of this mix is probably meant to evoke Berlin or even New York, vast metropoles defined by their towering architecture, but for some reason I've always associated it with San Juan and the outlying Carolina district in Puerto Rico. Listening for the first time brought back memories of cloudy days that would result in the inevitable torrential downpour, tropical colors overcast in grey.
Predictably, the last time I was on the island, I played it out nearly every day — further cementing the association.
Aside from its towering greatness, I often return to this mix because there's an elemental sound here, thick with all-encompassing atmosphere, that I have yet to hear anywhere else in so potent a form. Drawing on routes flaring out from primal musics — hip hop, techno and dub — and feeding them through a prism of post-punk abstraction, they seem to map out a vision of ancient future music that remains vital to this day.
Through the murk and the grime, or because of it perhaps, resolve endures in the gutter: green grows through cracks in the pavement, ribbons of light slip through a crumbling edifice at dawn. City lights smear across a car window in the night, Cosmo Vitelli trying to realize a vision. Dread becomes determination, and Terranova puts all of it to wax.
This poll would ultimately decide which five DJ-Kicks mixes would be offered up half-price in their online store. However, since certain entries were out of stock, they weren't eligible for the poll — thus rendering the results tainted!
My top five would look something like this: 1. Terranova, 2. Smith & Mighty, 3. Stacey Pullen, 4. Kruder & Dorfmeister, 5. Claude Young. At least one of those was not available though, forcing me to pick Rockers Hi-Fi and (if memory serves) Andrea Parker.
As a loose bit of trivia here, you can see this record (along with The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra, Vol. 1) lying in the background of the barebones room that Coco is sitting in on the B-Sides & Remix Sessions liner notes.