I remember first getting into Sade's music about twenty years ago (around the time of her fin de siecle masterpiece Lovers Rock), an era when it slotted in quite nicely among the 4 Hero, Recloose and Innerzone Orchestra records I'd been soaking up (not to mention the vintage jazz and soul sides I'd begun investigating now that I'd started to earn a bit of money). All of which itself sprung naturally from my musical bedrock of techno, trip hop and r&b.
So anyway, Sade. Sade is one of those strange attractors in music, a figure who seems to almost effortlessly command total respect from the cognoscenti. She takes her time between releases, waiting until she feels that she has something new to say before deliberately crafting her new record. This fact, paired with her opaque private life and distrust of media attention, make her an illusive, enigmatic figure whose every release becomes an event in its own right. Look at the rapt response to her latest full-length, Soldier Of Love (nearly ten years ago!), for all the evidence you need.
I remember one time there was a thread dedicated to her on the Submerge message board — which naturally was chock full of techno and house heads — where everyone was lavishing her music with praise (you quickly find that this is not an uncommon response). It was within this context that I heard whispers of a 12" bootleg of Sade remixes by second wave Detroit auteurs Stacey Pullen and Kenny Larkin. Eventually (much later, actually), I managed to track down a copy. As far as I know, this is the original underground Sade remix slate, predating the scores of house bootlegs that surfaced at the dawn of the 21st century.
In fact, before I'd known about the Illegal Detroit record, I happened to pick up the Secretsoul 12" at California Sound & Lighting along with a bundle of techno records like Millsart's Every Dog Has Its Day and DJ ValiumIII. It was a solid bit of deep house maneuvering (especially the second side, featuring a lush remix of Kiss Of Life) that managed to tide me over during the intervening years, but these Illegal Detroit remixes are happening on a whole other plane...
At its root, Surrender Your Love is a dancefloor re-imagining of Sade's minimalistic, sultry moonlight burner Give It Up. Originally tucked away at the tail end of her third album, Stronger Than Pride1988, it was ensconced within a rich, flowing record of torch-lit vocal jazz. The record's spacious sonic environment was full of flowing FenderRhodes, echoic Blue Note instrumentation and Sade's peerless vocals front-and-center.1
The album has an almost (dare I say) Balearic focus on rhythm, replete with subtle island flourishes, heavy bass and sparse production that really lends itself to a sort of insouciantly jazz-inflected dancefloor vision. Paradise was the big hit of the record, reaching #1 in the US Billboard Hot R&B chart (and deservedly so), but — if anything — Give It Up is even better: its gently unfolding Rhodes progression, chugging bassline, rolling percussion and disembodied trumpets are the perfect foundation for Sade's singular vocals to wander like an empress through her gardens.
It's this set of base materials that the Detroit cats descend upon. The first side is devoted to Kenny Larkin's remix, which is a gently flowing eleven-minute excursion into the dreamy climes of jazz-tinged deep house. The rolling conga rhythm from the original version is augmented here by some substantial percussive programming from Lark Daddy himself, with the tempo itself slightly quickened in the process.
The fascinating thing about both remixes is that — to the best of my knowledge — they weren't made from source tapes. Both versions are essentially edits of the original tune's spartan jazz figures, fleshed out with their own arrangements brought to bear on the material. Thus, that same clipped hi-hat figure and throbbing bassline get incorporated into a pulsing 4/4 groove, while those trademark disembodied trumpets flutter through the mix. Throughout it all, Sade's vocals surf the rhythm in such a way that you'd swear she felt it there all along.
The melodic crux of Larkin's mix lies in the gentle DX-100 pattern — in the mold of that synths classic bass organ sound — and an occasional synth flourish that sounds a distant cousin to the HohnerClavinet. It seems to spike the unfolding tune with an aberrant tattoo of improvisational unpredictability, connecting with the abstract jazz inflections of Larkin's own recordings.
Case in point is Metaphor, Larkin's contemporary LP (and his sophomore set). The lush synth textures of tunes like Java and Soul Man run parallel to Surrender Your Love's tidal chord progressions, while the record's final three-track run (spanning Sympathy, Butterflies and Amethyst) sounds like nothing so much as sparkling jazz fusion redrawn on the game grid of 90s digital dance. The KurzweilK2000 was one of Larkin's key synths at this point, and it's distinctively delicate textures are painted all across the record.2a
Interestingly, this delicate, nimble touch is something held in common between significant expanses of the music made by the three prime figures of Detroit's second wave: Carl Craig, Kenny Larkin and Stacey Pullen.
And it's Stacey Pullen who turns in the flipside's rework of Give It Up. Between the two versions, his is the more radical reconstruction, full of the crazily inventive percussion figures you'd expect from the man (with his roots as a drummer in high school marching band).2b The beats have a rough-and-ready, almost garage-like swing to them, even predicting certain corners of broken beat in their tumbling cascade. Like Larkin, he also adds in his own keyboard tattoo to adorn the groove periodically, like an illusory piece of a dream.
Pullen's contemporary The Theory Of Silent Phase album was actually recorded around the same time in Kenny Larkin's studio.2a One suspects that these remixes must have been born from those sessions. The Silent Phase record is a tour de force of digital techno soul, defined by its brittle drum programming and lush aquatic synths. Tunes like Air Puzzle and Forbidden Dance clearly mirror what Pullen was up to on his remix of Surrender Your Love, drawing up blueprints for new approaches to machine rhythm.
Of course, he'd take all this to its logical conclusion with Todayisthetomorrowyouwerepromisedyesterday2001, an electronic jazz masterstroke of superfly techno soul that was the culmination of everything he'd been up to since his early Bango records. That it happened to coincide with The Neptunes surfing their own peak (circa Wanderland/In Search Of...)3 was poetic justice, as the very sound of The Theory Of Silent Phase often strikes me as a precursor to The Neptunes own escapades on those records. 2001 simply found them cresting in parallel.
All of which brings us to a large part of the reason I think this record is so crucial, despite its inherent obscurity (bootlegs tend to be that way),4 which is that it so perfectly articulates a future vision of the intersection of house, jazz and r&b (with a dash of techno thrown in for good measure) that would come to be oddly prescient in the following years. Coming out in 1995 — smack in the middle of the 90s — Surrender Your Love was oceans ahead of its time, sharing a unique sonic space alongside Model 500's Deep Space in laying out the blueprint for the future.
One can hear not only pre-echoes of Timbaland's machine soul excursions during the latter half of the decade but also things like Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun2000 and Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope1998, not to mention Moodymann, Theo Parrish and The Lords Of Svek (one can almost read it as the midpoint between Tony! Toni! Toné!'s Sons Of Soul and all of these records).5 As such, it's a stunning tile to encounter mid-decade and below the radar: it's that rare record that contains multitudes within its unexplored grooves.
It's time to talk about Deep Space. An album dropped by Juan Atkins amidst a flurry of activity in 1995, it was released smack in the middle of the nineties and bisecting the decade both literally and metaphorically. Slotting in quite comfortably within the currents of outer space imagery running through techno at the time, from Galaxy 2 Galaxy to 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and the Red Planet EPs, it also predicted the tronik r&b moves and minimalist grooves of the late 90s, sounds that take us right up to the present day. Deep Space remains a fascinating record for the way it blends techno, machine soul, micro-house and jazz inflections into a swirling nebula of sonic possibility.
With Atkins tugging the curtain that conceals tomorrow from all of us, he's invited you to catch a glimpse of tomorrow's music looming just around the bend. This is a 21st century soul record, playing like a star map to the future. To this day, it remains one of those records so singular, so forward-thinking, that it's difficult to assess just where exactly it came from. How did Deep Space happen? To answer that question, where the future came from, one must take a look into the past. A decade in the past, to be precise. So let's set our time circuits back to good old 1985...
It's 1985. Juan Atkins had been a member of Cybotron (alongside Richard Davis aka 3070) for a few years by this point. Cybotron were seminal purveyors of electro operating concurrently with Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, who released Planet Rock just as Cybotron began unleashing records like Alleys Of Your Mind and Clear upon an unsuspecting public.
Cybotron's sound was a rude, street-level update of Kraftwerk's man-machine music, shot through with dark, psychedelic inflections that felt like a hangover from Funkadelic's early acid-tinged LPs (especially Cosmic Slop). The combination of Planet Rock and Clear (in particular) laid the foundation for the whole electro craze (see also Hashim, Planet Patrol and The Egyptian Lover), a sound that would go on to rule the first half of the 1980s.
The group added guitarist John Housey (aka Jon-5) for the album Enter, which expanded their sound to include a derezzed acid rock dynamic sprawling out in songs like Industrial Lies and the title track. Cosmic Cars rocked a 4/4 rhythm in a way that predicted the rugged, ramshackle techno traxx of 1987, while the digital funk of The Line and El Salvador split the difference between the black new wave of Alleys Of Your Mind and Clear's stripped-down electro punch.
The record also featured the awesome Cosmic Raindance, a skeletal tune built on a nimble rhythm matrix of crisp drum machines and a descending funk bassline, all of which propelled these great spiraling clouds of whining synthesized sound across a stormy digital sky. Ending in a crash of computerized thunder, it set a thrilling template for the elegant, minimalist electro of Drexciya and Elecktroids that would surface about a decade later. Cybotron swiftly followed Enter with the Techno City, at which point Atkins decided to strike out on his own.
This is where we came in. That is, 1985, when Atkins started his own label, Metroplex Records, and released his first solo record: Model 500's No UFO's. The record was a perfect fusion of tightly regimented electronic sequences and raging percussive chaos, boasting a richer, even-more-psychedelic sound than Cybotron. I'll put it this way: if Kraftwerk were James Brown circa Sex Machine and Cybotron were Sly & The Family Stone circa Stand!, then Model 500's No UFO's was Funkadelic circa Maggot Brain. Can you get to that?
The flipside was dominated by the slithering rhythm of Future, which found Atkins pumping electro moves the same way Hendrix played Killing Floor (see also Channel One's Technicolor), which is to say faster, more fluid and with more authority than anyone else around. This is ground zero for that 90s electro sound we all love so much, what with the tighter sound and sharper edges, it laid the blueprint for whole swathes of the scene. Aux 88 were certainly paying attention.
Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) followed, and somehow it managed to be even better. A masterpiece of neon vectors colliding in a phantasmagoria of motorik digital funk, it pierces your consciousness with tumbling bleeps and then just rolls for six minutes. Atkins narrates the nocturnal journey over eerie computer blue sonics, adding claustrophobic Jamie Principle-esque vocal stylings that give the whole trip a shadowy, spectral effect.
This is the first glimmer of what would come to define the Deep Space sound, and as such it kicks off a little potted history we're about to indulge in: a history of Atkins' music within this rarefied terrain. The following four records each outline key developments that would culminate in the Deep Space sessions. Context is key. After all, an investigation into this impulse within Atkins' discography plugs you directly into what is — by my estimation — the purest manifestation of machine soul.
After blazing a singular path through the remainder of the decade with records like Off To Battle, Interference and Other Side Of Life, Atkins rang in the 90s with the Ocean To Ocean EP. Kicking off with two versions of Ocean To Ocean, which played like a smooth-groove summation of everything he'd been up to in the intervening years, it was the flipside that offered a stunning preview of things to come.
Rocking a 4/4 pulse threaded by a resolute string/bass melody inna Off To Battle-stylee, Wanderer played like a stop off at the connecting station for the bullet train trip from 1985 to 2001. I've noted before how this EP was something of a blueprint for the more reflective side of UR's endeavors, and nowhere is that more evident than in Wanderer. It also neatly sets the stage for the final song of the record, its undeniable highlight.
Infoworld starts with a memorable bleep refrain before revving up the 4/4 engine once again. A geometric bass pulse threads the beat matrix while electronic string staccatos seems to fuel the track's propulsion. The sound here defined by a sleek, aerodynamic quality, with a greater emphasis placed on nimble grooves and lush synth atmospherics. Ah yes... those synths! Like Larry Heard and Carl Craig, there's just no mistaking Juan Atkins' synths for anyone else's. As clear an oracle as one could ask for, Infoworld lays out the foundation for the next decade plus of Atkins' journey.
Case in point being this three track EP, Atkins' first engagement with R&S Records — via their ambient subsidiary Apollo — which finds him expanding the sound of Infoworld into sprawling intergalactic shapes. The motorik techno soul of Vessels In Distress finds Atkins in collaboration with Martin Bonds (aka Reel By Real), offering up a Moroder-inflected take on the Motor City sound shot through with shimmering shapes and textures.
Mind Changes features Atkins' dreamy vocals in duet with android intonations over a bouncing, compact house rhythm. With the track's austere 4/4 pulse defined by a sort of ethereal synth architecture, it's of a piece with the proto-micro-house sides that he'd begun circulating under the name Infiniti, records like Flash Flood and Think Quick. All of which would ultimately lead to his collaboration with German duo 3MB (Moritz von Oswald and Thomas Fehlmann) on the awesome Jazz Is The Teacher EP (more on this later).
The title track finds Atkins incorporating crashing breakbeats into his sound, the breaks sparring with his usual 808 dynamics and a chiming bleep matrix in a flowing tide pool of ethereal synth and atmosphere. Apparently the tune got some action at contemporary drum 'n bass sound systems, where it'd be pitched up at a sped-up '45rpm (proto-ambient jungle!). I suppose that does make sense. Above all else, its mode is pure machine soul and a clear indication of the shape of things to come...
Tucked away on Atkins' own Metroplex imprint is this nearly forgotten 12". Whereas much of the Metroplex catalog has been serviced quite well, to the best of my knowledge this has never been reissued. Which is a shame, because this is one of Magic Juan's absolute greatest records. I See The Light is a spectral electro symphony built on a cycling 808 chassis with a staircase bleep pattern and wispy synth figures swaying across its ocean-like refrain. Atkins intones the title's lyrics in a deadpan whisper. It's all veryAux 88.
Of course, the b-side is even better! Pick Up The Flow commences with one of Atkins' trademark sci-fi synth progressions, computer sounds fading into view on a tumbling drum machine rhythm as a rolling bassline unfurls across the length of the track. The whole thing seems to drift by on a cosmic wind, bleeps intoning between the verses as Atkins'
gentle raps ride the rhythm in this gently pulsing astral hymn. Deep Space music, to coin a royal phrase. Stunningly beautiful, it flows quite naturally into our next record, which is the final way station before we reach our destination.
Back on R&S — this time with Basic Channel's Mortiz von Oswald in the engineering booth — Atkins delivers Sonic Sunset, his first extended sequence of solo material. Nominally an EP, with three versions of the title track, it clocks in at nearly an hour. Built on a rapid-fire synth sequence that seems to bounce across the rhythm's surface, Sonic Sunset spans the beatless freeform of the Calm Mix to the Cave Mix's dubbed-out reverb architecture (shades of Basic Channel). The Third Wave Mix, which I suspect to be the original version, is of a piece with Jazz Is The Teacher (those unpredictable rhythms a signpost for tech jazz).
Neptune's iridescent, hall-of-mirrors trip stretches out horizontally across its sprawling twelve minutes, sounding like trance music played at a disco pace. Also comparable to the ambient house moves of The Orb and Sun Electric, it affirms the implicit connection between Detroit, Berlin and London (a figure like Thomas Fehlmann moving freely between the three). The machines here left to spool out into infinity on a vector-plotted course, sounding like nothing so much as a deep space probe gliding through the deep black of space.
Rather appropriately for this deep space journey of a record, Sonic Sunset's longest track also happens to be its greatest treasure: I Wanna Be There, a skittering slab of motorik techno soul, lasts the better part of twenty minutes. Dig that nagging shuffle of a rhythm and the bassline bounce, parallaxing against those great twisting atmospheric synths in the background.
More than anything else here, it runs parallel to the proto-micro-house of Infiniti, albeit shot through with jazz-inflected shapes and a set of tender vocals from Atkins.
His delivery strikingly different here in comparison to his earlier man-machine moves, revealing Magic Juan the introspective soul man. Alongside those jazzed-out keys that dance across the surface, punctuating the groove even as as they spar with ethereal, flute-like sonics, it brings to mind the disco-era cosmic jazz moves of figures like Norman Connors and Idris Muhammad, rebuilt and rewired for the 21st century. Kompakt funk, to a man. The whole trip takes us through the final stretch of our journey, setting the stage perfectly as we arrive at our destination....
This is Juan Atkins' debut album... now you're in Deep Space.
You switch on the music. Surfing in on a great wash of synthesized stardust, the ethereal chords of Milky Way drift across the soundscape before a gently shuffling drum machine rhythm comes into focus. This is liquid techno soul, soaring upon Atkins' trademark synth architecture and drums a tad tougher than you might expect. Computer sonics thread the groove within the groove, and post-Herbie Hancock sequences hop across the spaces between the spaces. It all fits in perfectly with what Carl Craig was up to circa Landcruising and More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art, particularly songs like At Les and Science Fiction.
Notably, the track was co-written with fellow Detroit icon Kevin Saunderson. This at the height of Deep Space Radio, a recurring show that found the Deep Space Crew (rounded out by Atkins, Saunderson and Derrick May) bringing techno music to terrestrial airwaves. Undoubtedly, those heady vibes can be felt in this record as strongly as they could Saunderson's X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio (a mix album dedicated to enshrining the show's vision on disc for posterity) a couple years later.
As if that weren't enough, Milky Way was mixed by the great François Kevorkian. It certainly does have a touch of the cosmic about it. Cosmic jazz? Cosmic disco? You got it. Above all else, this gently unfolding deep space psychedelia often reminds me of peak-era Neptunes (during the whole Star Track trip they'd kick off a few years later) at their most blissed out. Needless to say, very strong SA-RA vibes are in evidence throughout as well.
A bubbling synth rises from the silence, heralding the arrival of the next track. With a pulsing 4/4 groove punctuated by a clanking sound one might encounter on a Rob Hood record, Orbit is on a slightly minimalist trip. One might even notice shades of Basic Channel in there somewhere. However, the strongest signal I'm getting here is from Jazz Is The Teacher. Despite it's minimalist intent, Orbit's got that unpredictable, anything-can-happen feel of the 3MB record. Maybe it's the splashing hi-hats, maybe those synths bubbling under, maybe even the crystalline synths that drift into the mind's eye every so often, but it's unmistakably there.
Until it isn't, of course, as Orbit collapses into a bubbling pool of synth and texture receding into the horizon. A menacing acid line rises from the chaos, announcing the arrival of The Flow.
Which is quite simply incredible. A perfect fusion of Kraftwerk and Janet Jackson, this is the Ur-text of machine soul. A shading of struck bells and that menacing electronic sequence drive crisp 808 beats that couldn't sound any more different from 1995 r&b if they were produced by Steve Reich. Of course a year later, Timbaland would single-handedly make it the sound of cutting edge r&b, bringing the form into the 21st century a few years early.
Aisha Jamiel's vocals alternate between spoken word and songbird (which becomes doubly haunting for the ethereal chorus) just like Missy Elliott would on Supa Dupa Fly two years later. The sonic similarities to Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) are undeniable as well, with The Flow recalling Atkins earlier opus only s-l-o-w-e-d d-o-w-n considerably, making it the definitive link between Metroplex and One In A Million, and as such the cornerstone of machine soul.
Notably, The Flow spawned three separate 12" singles, featuring a bevy of remixes spread across them. You get a deliciously retro electro workout from the Jedi Knights, a jazzy drum 'n bass reading from Alex Reece, Frank De Wulf's proto-speed garage mix, a Howie B. machine funk take and two hard-edged speedfreak mixes from Underworld. However, the best remix is by Magic Juan himself.
The G-Funk Mix a wall-shaking house party monster jam, featuring a lascivious bass groove yoked to a Zapp-inflected robot voice. Aisha Jamiel's vocals duel with a jazzy Rhodes up and down the groove. Atkins grasp of the dynamics here quite simply impeccable, this ought to have gotten serious radio play. Shame, really. Along with J Dilla, who had a shaping influence on both Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope and D'Angelo's Voodoo, their impact didn't break through to the popular consciousness. Like krautrock, innit?
Still, it makes perfect sense that the era's r&b would have some serious Motor City vibes lurking just below the surface. Shades of The Velvet Underground & Nico... peel slowly and see.
Warning follows with a similar spirit to Orbit's, The Flow bookended by two erratic slabs of minimalist jazz electronica. Another high-pitched sliver of Rob Hood-recalling noise taps out a rhythm across a bouncing pendulum of clockwork synthesizer. These great detuned synths seem to squeeze up from beneath the cracks in the rhythm like iridescent magma. Still jazzed-out, but tweaked to abstraction. Playing like a tone poem, there's shades of onomatopoeia to the whole affair. Think Drexciya's Draining Of The Tanks or X-103's Eruption: this is a synthetic recreation of the events depicted in its title. You're on red alert.
At the last moment, you're carried away on the sweet sway of Astralwerks, a nebula of a track, an enigma, with rolling rhythms that seem to split the difference between downbeat and junglist double-time the way a certain Tim Mosley would a year later. The synths seem to speed up and slow down with the rhythm, the whole effect pleasantly disorienting. It's of a piece with the ambient jungle of A Guy Called Gerald circa Black Secret Technology, 4 Hero circa Parallel Universe and Jacob's Optical Stairway (a 4 Hero one-off that featured Atkins on The Fusion Formula).
The spectre of drum 'n bass hangs over the entirety of this record, in fact. I suspect that the unpredictable rhythmic danger felt throughout is sourced in jungle as much as it is in jazz. There's almost a sense of Atkins raising his game to match the innovations of the U.K.'s junglist auteurs. Noteworthy also the explicit drum 'n bass connections in the shape of 12" remixes by Wax Doctor and Alex Reece.
Starlight is similarly forward-thinking work, this time in a thoroughly Basic Channel mode. Built on a gently chugging rhythmic figure, the melody is carried by a single synth pulsing at regular intervals as its run through the filters. Sailing on a solar wind in perpetual motion, the whole thing so slight but profound. It's worth noting that from the prior tune onward, the remaining tracks on this album are engineered by Moritz von Oswald. Nowhere is that more evident than on Starlight, which even got a 12" release on Metroplex with a remix from Oswald.
One thing that's always intrigued me about Starlight is how much it sounds like an Infiniti record. There's that same sense of linear expanse stretching across a great horizontal plane that one finds in tunes like Moon Beam or Think Quick. In fact, it's an even more skeletal outing than even most of the Infiniti output, with the same x-ray architecture that Oswald and Mark Ernestus had essayed in Basic Channel. As one might expect, this sense is amplified in the Moritz Mix on the 12", with its striking tonal shifts and great caverns of reverb.
Fans of Isolée, Luomo and Villalobos would love both versions of Starlight, which have the same shimmering, tactile quality one finds in Beau Mot Plage, Tessio and Dexter. Like I was saying before, Kompakt funk. Fascinating the way this record weaves its micro-house and machine r&b shapes together, envisioning an unlikely sonic pact between the two forms before they'd even fully come into their own. The juxtaposition certainly makes far more sense in 2018 than it would have at the time. But then, they don't call Juan AtkinsThe Originator for nothing...
Last Transport To Alpha Centauri, which plays like a downbeat, deconstructed take on the earliest Metroplex releases, is to No UFO's as Funk Gets Stronger Part 1 is to Flash Light. It's a great little piece of electronic funk that very strongly recalls Kraftwerk circa Computer World, but with a glitch in the machine. There certainly seems to be a fair bit of mischief about it, the delivery executed with a wink and a nod.
The record's penultimate track is a tight edit of I Wanna Be There, which you'll remember originally appeared on Sonic Sunset. Within the context of the record, it's the mirror image of The Flow, an r&b-inflected pop song at sea in abstraction. The third of the singles from this record (after Starlight and The Flow), the I Wanna Be There features an aqua tint drum 'n bass mix from Wax Doctor and a lush tech jazz rework from Dave Angel. Once again, however, the kicker is the remix by the man himself. Stripping the track down to a sleek spacecraft simplicity, Atkins aligns it even more closely with Infiniti's digital micro-funk moves.
Which are also writ large on Lightspeed, the closing track to the Deep Space saga. Fusing the celestial atmospherics of Starlight with the shuffling catch-up groove Milky Way, it's as if the scrambled memories of the record are being rearranged in the slipstream across the dark side of Jupiter. Beyond the infinite. With just a snatch of almost subliminally funky bass and the occasional synth shimmer, it's the perfect ending to this intergalactic voyage.
As I said before, Deep Space feels more futuristic with every passing year. At the time, one might not have noted the implicit connections made between Pony, Beau Mot Plage and Finley's Rainbow, but with the benefit of hindsight, they're all here clear as crystal. Somewhere in the record's DNA lie the whisper of future figures like SA-RA, Dâm-Funk, Spacek and the music they would bring. Juan Atkins mapped out this strange point of intersection where cosmic r&b, shimmering micro-house, electronic jazz and straight up techno all collide to form the basis of machine soul: the art form of the 21st century. You're in deep space.
During what's turned out to be an exceptionally busy week, I've been vibing out practically non-stop to Woebot's latest mix: Bands a make her dance.1 The mix's general brief is rapping with instruments inna live band stylee — stretching back through time all the way to the fifties — and it's an absolute burner, packed with incredible music spanning from old school hip hop to killer deejay reggae cuts and beyond: into the nexus of street verse and rough cut funk. Put simply, this is Rap Attack music. Truth be told, it's something of a sweet spot for me, so I couldn't help but dive in with a little off-the-dome commentary... please forgive me.
The mix kicks off with Tone And Poke's lavish production for Jay-Z in 2001's Jigga, from that period when hip hop was routinely interfacing with the machine funk blueprint laid out by Timbaland and The Neptunes. Consequently, the next two tracks are N*E*R*D's man-machine hybrid Lapdance and Timbaland & Magoo's Up Jumps Da' Boogie, featuring Tim's typically lush take on machine soul (with the signature touch of Jimmy Douglass at the controls in fine style).
You could trace a line through material like Supa Dupa Fly and the early Kelis records back into much of the prime late-period swingbeat: things like Tony! Toni! Toné!'s awesome Sons Of Soul record — featuring Raphael Saadiq's fluid basslines and rolling live breakbeats knocked out by Tim Riley — naturally, but also the rugged flexing grooves of Jodeci's sophomore album Diary Of A Mad Band.
Indeed, this is where Timbaland's crew Da Bassment hooked up in the first place, with DeVante Swing and Mr. Dalvin linking up with figures like Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott (still with Sista at this point), Jimmy Douglass and Tim himself, who would all go on to map out the future of r&b through the balance of the decade.
Subsequently, this is the context from which all the great Soulquarian material sprung up: records like Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun and D'Angelo's Voodoo, functioning at the nexus of programmed rhythm and live-played instrumentation. These records didn't appear in a vacuum! In many ways they were an extension of and reaction to the crisp, modern blueprint laid out by producers like Timbaland, even as they sometimes pushed against it and dug deeper into the progressive soul roots of the seventies and beyond.
Questlove — key figure and strange attractor in this terrain that he is — was deeply involved in both records, pulling together personnel, offering historical perspective and of course laying down his trademark offhand rhythms at Electric Lady Studios. Indeed The Roots' Things Fall Apart — another peak-era Soulquarian production — is represented in this mix with the next track, Double Trouble, featuring Black Thought and Mos Def trading verses as they run through the classic Wild Style routine.
Appropriately, that other storied hip hop band, the inimitable Stetsasonic make an appearance next with Pen And Paper (from their classic sophomore set, In Full Gear). I've always loved the sort of shambolic, loose-limbed interface between machine music and live funk that Stet traded in. A lot of L.A. records switch into a similar mode from time to time, like The D.O.C.'s The Grande Finalé (one of the great posse cuts, an N.W.A. track in all but name) and The Pharcyde's Labcabincalifornia (with live drumming from Jay Dee on All Live).
Beat Bop — the mix's next selection and another Woebot fave — must be the Ur-text for this whole sound. The sinewy live instrumentation gets filtered through a futuristic beat matrix, courtesy of Jean-Michel Basquiat's forward-thinking production, over which Rammellzee and K-Rob trade verses in what I've often described as a hip hop update of Sly & The Family Stone's Africa Talks To You/The Asphalt Jungle. It's about as next-level as hip hop got in the early eighties, which is no small feat.
Woe sets the scene within an old school context, drawing deep from the pool of Sugar Hill Records, with selections like The Furious Five's Step Off Remix, Funky 4 + 1's That's The Joint and Trouble Funk's aptly titled Drop The Bomb. All three of which feature MCs doing their thing over live band backing, and right there at the center of rap's evolution (providing further evidence in favor of Woe's central thesis).
The D.C. Go-Go of Trouble Funk sits righteously in this context, and tangentially brings to mind one of my absolute favorite records from the scene, The Word/Sardines by The Junkyard Band, with its mad squelching bass and pile-driving breakbeats.
Further old school adventures continue with the improbably early smooth perfection of The Younger Generation's We Rap More Mellow, appearing at the tail end of the seventies as one of the first rap records to hit the shops. There's also the pre-electronic Afrika Bambaataa hip hop tile Zulu Nation Throwdown, featuring raps from the Cosmic Force dancing over a loose-limbed funk jam kicked up by the Harlem Underground band.
More honest-to-goodness funk, this time from The Fatback Band (who were twelve albums deep into their career as a hard funk unit by this point), appears later in the mix with King Tim III Personality Jock, which (depending on who you ask) is often considered thee very first hip hop recording to appear on wax.
These early rap works bring to mind another one of my favorites records from the era, Spoonie Gee's Spoonin' Rap, which almost sounds as if it could have been a stripped down backing track from the Remain In Light/My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts sessions. Similarly far-reaching and futuristic — and featured next in the mix — is The Treacherous Three's The Body Rock, offering up an evocative atmosphere in which a grinding synthetic bassline snakes through a circular guitar figure held down by Pumpkin's relaxed drum breaks, while Special K, L.A. Sunshine and Kool Moe Dee trade verses through carefully arranged reverb effects.
Everything here remarkably in sync with a lot of the era's post punk music: think The Magnificent Seven by The Clash, the Talking Heads's Once In A Lifetime and ESG's Moody.2 Many such figures were seduced by the burgeoning hip hop culture of the day, from Factory Records' whole dalliance with the East Coast3 to Chris Stein's (of new wave group Blondie) involvement with the backing tracks for the Wild Style soundtrack and The Clash bringing Futura 2000 on tour with them (while also backing him on the Celluloid rap 12" The Escapades Of Futura 2000).
Then there's the matter of Tackhead/Fat's Comet, featuring Doug Wimbish,4Skip McDonald and Keith LeBlanc of the Sugar Hill backing band. After leaving Sugar Hill, the group started out as East Coast post punk experimentalists, operating their own World Records imprint before running through Adrian Sherwood's cold dub machinery and backing Mark Stewart as the Maffia.
Sherwood's On-U Sound label a crucial conduit of left field dub recordings throughout the decade, stretching back into late seventies with material like Creation Rebel's early output and the Cry Tuff Dub Encounter series (which — spiritually, at least — seemed to pick up where Joe Gibbs' Africa Dub All-Mighty string of records left off).
Incidentally, the mix takes a left turn into reggae territory with a trio of discomix cover versions from the decade's turn masterminded by Gibbs, Xanadu & Sweet Lady's Rockers Choice (based on Rapper's Delight), Derrick Laro & Trinity's Don't Stop Till You Get Enough and Ruddy Thomas & Welton Irie's Shake Your Body Down To The Ground (the latter two Jacksons covers). Down mix a piece, Woe even gives the original MC music a look in with Big Youth's 1976 deejay cut Jim Squeachy and the impossibly early (1972) Festival Wise by U-Roy.
In between the Gibbs cuts and Big Youth, you get a pair of key jazz poetry cuts from Gil Scott-Heron (The Revolution Will Not Be Televised) and The Last Poets (Related To What). Both artists retroactively recognized as forefathers of rap music, The Last Poets even washing up with an eighties record on Celluloid. There was even a record from Last PoetLightnin' Rod with backing from Jimi Hendrix that also came out on Celluloid around the same time. Hendrix himself touching on rap with Crosstown Traffic... perhaps the first rap-rock song ever? Well, certainly the best.
Lightnin' Rod's Sport comes in next, taken from his excellent Hustlers Convention LP and featuring Kool & The Gang providing a nimble funk backing (and a clear precursor to all the old school live hip hop records discussed above). The godfather of funk himself slips into the mix with Black President, another foundational piece of music in hip hop, not only by virtue of its breakbeats — adorning as they do scores of rap 12"s — but also James Brown's ad-libbed vocal asides, dropped into the beat matrix with a rhythmic precision.
From there, we move into the final stretch of the mix with Pigmeat Markham's Here Comes The Judge (as mentioned in David Toop's Rap Attack5) from 1968. Interestingly enough, this record seems to be the basis for the Lee "Scratch" Perry-produced deejay record Public Jestering, fronted by Judge Winchester! And finally, Bo Diddley closes out the set with his epochal self-titled number, bringing it all back to the square root of the blues.
Which drops us into the recent climate round these parts. Post punk, hip hop and the blues. Machine soul is that final ingredient — in its triad forms of techno, house and r&b — of what you might call my kind of music. In fact, this is exactly the sort of thing I meant to broach last winter but for the encroachment of myriad real world commitments (what a drag). Yet with the late summer sun looming deep red on the horizon, it just might be the right time to go deep with it for real. At any rate, it's gonna be a wonderful fall.
Starting with A Certain Ratio recording their debut full-length To Each... at E.A.R.S. in New Jersey and continuing with New Order's work with Arthur Baker, John Robie and Jellybean Benitez (also at E.A.R.S.) on 1983's Confusion, with Factory even putting out an ESG record at one point in the interim. In a strange twist, New Order once played a tumultuous set at the Paradise Garage in 1983.
So it looks like I've nearly let a month slip by without delivering any goodies for you, and for that I have no apologies to offer (sometimes, reality just comes creeping in). I've got one feature that I'm in the process of putting together on L.A. hip hop, which is really just a little something inspired by the DJ Quik/Warren G show at The North Park Observatory. Quik's set got me in a West Coast state of mind, and I've been augmenting my usual diet of Moodymann and Mtume with a healthy dose of rolling g-funk ever since: a fitting soundtrack to the summer's heat of the last week or so (even as springtime has only just begun).
Part of the reason it took me a week to go digital about that show is the fact that I got caught up working on this upcoming material, which quickly managed to get out of hand: so many great rap records have come out of L.A. that it seemed lame to just distill the list down to the usual suspects (although those do get a look-in). Why not go all out and dive headlong into this little corner of the Parallax stacks? Ultimately, the plan will be to split this feature into four separate slabs, each one focusing on a particular aspect of the L.A. thang.
There's a couple new records that have been in heavy rotation at the Parallax Room, particularly the new Model 500 album (Digital Solutions) and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly. Digital Solutions is a master stroke from Juan Atkins, featuring Mad Mike and even Amp Fiddler in the fold (two players who just so happen to have played with Parliament/Funkadelic in the past, appropriately enough). This is supremely elegant Detroit techno, picking up where Deep Space left off and stretching that sound further yet into the 21st century.
On the hip hop tip, Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly is without a doubt something extraordinary, finding Kendrick Lamar processing the prevailing mood of these past few years and putting down a fierce reaction in a record that is both here and now. Picking up the thread of sprawling, ambitious soul/jazz albums that engage with the times and manage to work all the way through, its a bracing listen that brings to mind classic records like Silentintroduction and Voodoo. I could go on and on, and that's a potential list in itself right there. Appropriately enough, it follows on the heels of D'Angelo's Black Messiah, a similarly fathoms-deep rumination on the present state of affairs.
I'd love to engage with all of these records on here at some point in the near future. Beyond that, I've got a couple features waiting in the wings (and I still need to talk about that Jungle LP). The response to the Radio AG2015 Winter Mix was positive in the Heights, so I'm hoping to get something cookin' for spring within the next month or so. I may even hit you with some more frivolous material along the way in order to keep communications open between features. After all, spring is the time to get loose...