For those of you who've just been rescued from a desert island and thus missed all the ink spilled over UK duo Basement Jaxx, their>"/>
For those of you who've just been rescued from a desert island and thus missed all the ink spilled over UK duo Basement Jaxx, their domestic debut Remedy (XL/Astralwerks) is one of the finest albums of 1999. The twosome's hard-hitting house music integrates Latin, jazz, and even ska into catchy cuts that transcend the genre's fondness for interchangeable tracks featuring pointless wailing about "pride" and "joy." Their success and acclaim owe much to pushing stylistic boundaries.
And yet there was something missing from the Jaxx's DJ set at ARO.space last week. Don't get me wrong; the evening was fantastic. The duo dropped all their hits ("Rendez-vu," "Red Alert") plus a handful of custom-made bootlegs (blackSTREET's "No Diggity," Inner City's "Good Life") and tweaked the effects knobs so hard that taking drugs seemed superfluous. Any jock that can rock a crowd with "King of Pain" by the Police certainly deserves some sort of notoriety. But as the two-and-a-half hour set wound down, my weary legs started wishing the boys had varied the pace more, rather than galloping along at top speed all night.
Like Richie Hawtin of Plastikman says, just because you love chocolate cake doesn't mean you eat it every day. Why does this concept confound so many DJs? During the heyday of disco, Cheryl Lynn's down-tempo "Got to Be Real" could pop up in the same set as a barnstormer like "Knock On Wood" by Amii Stewart. DJs in the '80s programmed the minimalist homegrown funk of ESG alongside Mantronix's futuristic electro or "The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight" with nary a second thought. Sometimes an evening of nothing but nonstop house or techno is enough to make me start cobbling together a time machine in the basement. Mercifully, the past couple months have seen the release of three CDs that do an excellent job of showing off the talents of a trio of the most influential—and underrated—historical figures in dance music, all of whom trafficked in the versatility that was once the rule, not the exception: David Mancuso, Larry Levan, and Gwen Guthrie.
David Mancuso's club The Loft opened in 1970. Essentially a private party held in the DJ's Soho apartment, this weekly event brought together a mix of patrons that spanned race, class, and sexuality. His musical tastes transcended boundaries, too. The new double disc David Mancuso Presents The Loft (Stud!o K7/Nuphonic) offers up a diverse program emphasizing heavily percussive numbers including War's epic "City Country City." Influential mainstays such as Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa" (one of the earliest pop hits to emerge from the clubs) and an unreleased version of Loose Joints' "Is It All Over My Face" rub shoulders with lesser-known gems like the Winners' quasi-Motown throwdown "Get Ready for the Future." It doesn't matter if none of those names or titles ring a bell—these 18 tunes burst with unbridled energy and ideas.
Larry Levan, who called The Loft his "spiritual home," shared Mancuso's commitment to bringing together people and sounds of all stripes as resident DJ at New York's Paradise Garage, which for many remains the quintessential '80s nightclub. Despite its unwieldy title, Larry Levan's Classic West End Records Remixes Made Famous at the Legendary Paradise Garage (West End Records) goes a long way toward demystifying the allure of the influential DJ/producer (who died of a heart condition in 1992). Disjointed mixes punctuated by bizarre aural details were his specialty, and for dubbed-out, funky weirdness, "Serious, Sirius, Space Party" by Ednah Holt takes top honors.
Levan remixed several enduring singles for Taana Gardner ("Heartbeat," "No Frills," both on the West End disc), but it was singer/songwriter Gwen Guthrie whom he praised as "the first lady of Paradise Garage" at the venue's closing in 1987. When Guthrie passed away earlier this year, none of her albums were in print. Mercifully, Hip-O's Ultimate Collection makes almost all the Guthrie cuts Levan championed available on one CD: "Padlock," "Peanut Butter," "Seventh Heaven," and her number one R&B hit "Ain't Nothin' Goin' On But the Rent." This 14-track set does a swell job of capturing her eclectic appeal, showcasing her collaborations with reggae greats Sly & Robbie as well as her own renditions of hits she penned for others, including Roberta Flack's "God Don't Make Ugly."
As writer Tim Lawrence sagely observes in his liner notes for The Loft, in "the myopic world of dance music . . . 'here' and 'now' rule supreme and the 'past' rarely gets beyond tabloid mythology." Thank heaven for these three steps toward righting that sorry state, providing a reminder that the creative possibilities of dance music are only as limited as the imaginations of the women and men making and playing it.