Friday, 27 May 2011

Hidden Gem: Motor Bass Get Phunked Up - La Funk Mob (Mowax)

Leaving home for the first time is one of the formative times in any person’s life. In my case it was when I left Gloucestershire at the age of eighteen to go and live in Liverpool. Initial disorientation soon gave way to new friends, nights out and exciting new music.

Our night out of choice at the university was 'Boogie Shoo' – a jazz, funk and soul night in the predictably named Mandela Bar. It was basically a long, dark room but double gin and tonics were a quid (cheap even in 1992) and my friends Rhys, Anj and Yuri span the tunes. Most of the selections were fairly predictable jazz funk standards – Gil Scott Heron’s The Bottle, Roy Ayer’s He’s a superstar, the odd Tribe Called Quest track perhaps...there was one song in particular though that really caught my ear. It was without much vocal and very slow, taking almost two minutes for any sort of melody to kick in, but it had a groove and was as deep as anything I'd ever heard. It started like a dance track but when the bass kicked in it was really funky. Rhys a.k.a. Boney M.Organ, would bring it in over the top of other tracks, slowly building the tension before a huge bass kicked in and about 20 students would get lost in a sea of dry ice.

I had to know what the track was and sure enough it was Motor bass get phunked up by La Funk Mob. In the twenty years since I first heard it I’ve never tired of it. It is a perfect example of a track that takes it time getting to where it is going but once you’ve ‘got it’ it stays with you forever, the sort of track in which you can lose yourself and forget everything else that is going on in the world. Starting with a suspense laden cymbal, it breaks down in the middle, a European female voice uttering ‘Paris, London, from La Funk Mob’. The only other vocal is a man claiming ‘this is some good stuff man’, one assumes he’s not talking about gin n' tonic. This track is effortlessly cool, recalling Trans Europe Express, 80’s electro and even jazz rather than the other Mowax tracks of the time.

La Funk Mob were actually Hubert Blanc Francard (Boom Bass) and Philippe Zdar Cerboneschi and would later become French house legends Cassius. They started working together in 1988 producing MC Solaar, in 1991 they formed La Funk Mob. La Funk Mob never got the kudos or commercial success that Cassius (or even another of their projects Motorbass) achieved but its doubtful that they’ve ever bettered this track.

Some music isn’t easy, you have to work at it to get it but when you do it means more. Motor Bass Get Phunked Up is a perfect example.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Album review: Goblin - Tyler the Creator (XL)

From Elvis to Eminem via the Sex Pistols, Beastie Boys and Guns n' Roses, controversy is a fairly bankable marketing approach in the music industry. It certainly seems to be paying off for Odd Future (or Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All to give them their full name). The LA Hip Hop collective have certainly generated plenty of column inches if not sales as yet. Their dark raps about faggots and rape aren't to everybody's taste but many music lovers acknowledge that they have a certain appeal with their atmospheric production and innovative approach to spreading their sound (up to now free via their tumblr site). The lyrical content issue reverts back to the old chestnut about whether they are utterly misogynistic or whether they are portraying a gothic fantasy (see also Ice T and Eminem). Personally I find it a bit distasteful and unnecessary as there are plenty of ways of keeping it real without reverting to homophobia and sexual aggression (Public Enemy managed it as did the Stooges) but I guess that's being 18 for you.

The undisputed leader of the crew is Tyler the Creator. His Bastard LP was an immediate darkcore hip hop classic. I loved its cinematic production and dark gravelly monotone raps and so was most excited to hear the first Odd Future release proper (e.g. on CD) Goblin. The album effectively already has two hit singles. Yonkers and Sandwiches have been doing the rounds for some time on the net and Sandwiches was performed in their memorable debut TV performance on the Jimmy Fallon show.

Goblin sets out its stall from the outset 'I'm not a fucking role model' Tyler tells his therapist alter ego, the pitched down Dr TC. The wonderful Yonkers highlights his self awareness ' I'm a fucking walking paradox' he proclaims over Wu style beats and deep bass. Indeed he is, on one hand he is deeply offensive, and yet, throughout Goblin he hints at a vulnerability and insecurity about his place in the world. He needn't worry - he certainly has the talent to reach out to his own age group. You can almost smell the putrid stench of a Reading Festival moshpit on Radicals as he intones the Odd Future Mantra 'Kill people, burn shit, fuck school'. This might just be the best track on the album especially when it suddenly breaks with a lovely coda that wouldn't be out of place on an Aerial Pink Graffiti record.

Its sad then, that after this electric start, things go rapidly downhill. Transylvania is bland while Nightmare is one dimensional. Tron Cat is better although the claim 'i'm snorting Hitler's ashes' shows Tyler's ability to break yet another taboo but its only when we reach track 9 Sandwiches, where things pick up again. Its no coincidence that this is one of the tracks here with a stronger melody than others which are essentially skits or rants over beats.

Tyler does himself no favours with two tracks Boppin' Bitch and Bitch Suck Dick which reveal his misogyny - this stuff is really tiresome and also warrants suggestions that the album lacks focus in places (it is far too long). Tyler is undeniably a talent but needs to reign himself in in both subject matter and delivery. Window is a perfect example, its the longest track on the album and deals with Tyler's ruminations on his new found fame 'at school I was zero, now I'm every boy's hero' but there is little in the track to warrant repeated listens.

Surprisingly, one of the best bits of the record is instrumental. Au79 provides a welcome respite from the soul searching and misery. The final quarter of the album in general picks up a little (with references to  lost Odd Future associate Earl in abundance) but the record as a whole is rather an anti-climax after such a promising start and nowhere near as coherent as Bastard. Undoubtedly the best tracks are the ones with a more melodic approach (some of the singing from collaborator Hodgy Beats is superb).

Tyler isn't the finished article for sure but his talent is undeniable and Odd Future remains one of the most exciting developments in hip hop in recent years.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Album review: House of Balloons - The Weeknd

I can't claim to be any expert in RnB. I sort of lost interest around the time that Missy Elliot last made a decent record (Work it?). It's fair to say though that it probably hasn't had it's best period in recent years. It is easy to forget that at the turn of the millennium, Missy's producer (Timbaland) and others like the Neptunes were being feted as the very best in the world. Magazines were waxing lyrical about their ability to use techno style stabbing beats to modernise the urban sound. Then we had Chris Brown, R Kelly's increasingly bizarre behaviour and a lot of records that sounded tired and formulaic.

Imagine my surprise then when I heard the Weeknd's House of Balloons.  The Weeknd are clouded in mystery but are supposedly Abel Tesfaye (vocals) and Jeremy Rose (production) and hail from Toronto. They have made this album freely available to legally download (see link below), incredible given that its the most fresh sounding RnB album I've heard for some time. What is immediately apparent is the sense of space in their sound - clearly influenced by US chillwave and possibly even London's post dubstep scene. This all adds a slightly melancholy vibe to the production. The album take the listener on a journey through a night (or indeed a weekend) out and there are melodic hooks and crazy lyrics aplenty to keep things interesting throughout.

The opening two tracks ease us in before third track Glass table G. This starts a bit like something off the last Fever Ray album but then, three minutes in, shifts completely with a buzzy bass and vocals about the culmination of a wild night out. 'She give me sex in a handbag, I get her wetter than a wet mag' - it's sleazy, un-PC and quite brilliant. I doubt I'll hear a more compulsive piece of music all year. Next track The Morning is a much more conventional RnB track with its talk of 'pussy assed niggas' but still finds time to talk about codeine cups. Wicked games has electric guitar straight out of an 80's film soundtrack but Abel's vocal soars to create a blissed out coke haze - it's absolutely lovely in a really guilty pleasures way. By this stage, halfway through the record, an open minded listener can't help but be drawn in even if this isn't their natural territory. You feel dirty listening to it but its so good you can't help it - sort of how you feel watching Top Gun or Dirty Dancing.

The second half of the record in particular shows that the band have pretty varied taste. Indie is not an unknown quantity to Weeknd with both Siouxxe and the Banshee's Happy Home and Beach House being sampled. The band that spring to mind most though are the XX - not only because of the sense of space but also the way that they are happy to let a song unfold at it's own pace - quite a feat on a debut album where the temptation is inevitably to make every song 'matter'. A perfect exmple is Coming Down which drifts by effortlessly in the way Fleetwood Mac's Albatros would if it had R Kelly singing over the top of it. Loft Music is another highlight - 'I hear noises in the bathroom' again hints at the debauchery of the main protagonist. Final track The Knowing is frankly ludicrous. Its clearly an atempt to end things on a slightly more meaningful note and wouldn't necessarily sound out of place in a Disney movie (think Lion King) with its anthemic afro balladry.

The album as a whole is undoubtedly over the top in its hedonistic melodrama but is utterly enthralling. This is clearly a record that can only benefit from being played very loud on a car soundsystem - and how many records can you say that about recently? The production is superb and the vocal exposes a drug-addled vulnerability that many will relate to. I've been playing it to death over recent weeks and I think (especially given that its absolutely free) you should check it out too....let me know what you think.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The 20 greatest DJ mixes

The album is deemed the connoisseur’s method of listening to music but for a thrilling ride through genres and sounds nothing beats a DJ mix. The mix enables the listener to hear songs out of context alongside sounds they would never have envisaged to create something new. I remember listening to an essential mix by the Freestylers (anyone remember them?) which started with a combination of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy theme, Beenie Man and Public Enemy - it was quite simply one of the most thrilling things I have ever heard. A great DJ mix seamlessly blends records that no-one would have put together in such a way that it seems entirely logical – taking the listener on a journey of twists and turns through differing moods and tempos. Some focus solely on dance music with a 4/4 beat, others eschew this for a more esoteric take on great songwriting of the last 50 years (Air spring to mind). Here are 20 of the very best....if you have your own favourite please mention it in the comments below so that others can enjoy your choice...

20. Beat up the NME - Fatboy Slim (1997)

A mix given away on Cassette with the NME. Norman Cook is now best known for his big beat sound and there are a number of tracks here that hint at this (most notably Pierre Henry's Psyche Rock and tracks from Psychedelia Smith and Bassbin Twins) but this also covers drum n bass (EPS and 2-Vybe's Hype the Funk - which went on to become my favourite track of the genre) and UK garage (Double 99's Rip Groove). A great listen in the car.

19. Another late night – Zero 7 (2002)

A personal favourite. I particularly love the mix of Da Lata's Pra Manha into Herbert's mix of Serge Gainsbourg's Bonnie and Clyde. This also features a number of quality mellow hip hop tracks by the likes of Madlib, Souls of Mischief and Roots Manuva. Anotherlatenight have cornered the niche in nice post-club vibes and their overall quality control is high.

18. Live in LA - Z-Trip (2003)

Don't like DJs and dance music? Try this. Z-Trip mixes up classic rock breaks (Zeppelin, ACDC, The Who) and mixes them up with hip hop beats (Jaz Z, Outkast) to devastating effect. One for the Luddites but great goofy fun.

17. Fabric - Swayzak (2003)

Techno mixes tend to leave me a bit cold. There is rarely enough variety to sustain interest over a longer period. That's why I like this one so much - despite essentially being deep techno all the way through it is varied enough to draw you in. After hearing this I've been after the Herbert mix of  Louie Austen's Hoping for half a decade....also includes the wonderful DFA remix of Metro Area's Orange Alert and LCD Soundsystem amongst more obscure tracks. The blending is excellent as well.

16. Sleepwalk - Optimo (2008)

One of the more subtle mixes on this list, Glasgow legends Optimo create a mellow after hours mix which manages to be electronica without focusing on current names. Kraut artists such as Cluster are mixed with the likes of Coil, Arthur Russell and Duke Ellington. This transcends genre creating a spiritual vibe that takes you to another world.

15. Death Mix Live!! - Africa Baambaata (1985)

Recorded at a High School in the Bronx, this perfectly captures the energy and excitement of early hip hop and is hugely influential despite appalling sound quality. DJ Shadow famously copied the cover many years later. Includes the Drells, Edwin Starr and the Jackson's timeless It's Great to be here.

14. Brainfreeze - Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow (1999)

Shadow and Cut Chemist blew everyone else out of the water when this arrived in 1999. Clearly influenced by the cut and paste of Double Dee and Steinski. This is a brilliant use of classic soul and funk reinvented for the hip hop generation. Inevitably the 1000 copies pressed sold out and it has been widely bootlegged.

13. The K and D sessions - Kruder and Dorfmeister (1998)

Less a DJ mix, more a collection of mixes by DJs, this is probably owned by every coffee shop in the country. There is no doubt that the impact of this record has been dulled by familiarity. When it was first released it was like nothing else, The Viennese duo's mellow beats weaved a heady flow through Roni Size, Lamb and Depeche Mode to name but three and created the perfect soundtrack for any time of day. Their remix of Bomb the Bass's Bug Powder Dust in particular was a complete reworking of the original for the post Massive Attack generation. It sold by the bucketload simply because it was so good....Immaculately stoned. 

12. Journey's by DJ, Desert Island Mix - Norman Jay and Gilles Peterson (1997)

Arguably the two most influential British DJs of the last 20 years teamed up for this effort to choose their desert island discs and both excel. Jay focuses heavily on disco with a couple of Voices of East Harlem tracks, Pattie Jo's Make me believe in you and a wonderful use of a hip hop beat over Hall and Oates' Maneater. Peterson predictably takes a more gentle route but manages to weave in Roni Size, Jazzanova and Rotary Connection's Black Gold of the Sun which has become one of his signature tunes.

11. Fabric – Diplo (2005)

For sheer enjoyment, this mix takes some beating. Heavy on classic electro (Cybotron, Debbie Deb, Freestyle) but wildly eclectic. The mix of the Cure's Lovesong into Outkast's Bombs over Baghdad is just wonderful. Brings the spirit of Fabric to the living room. Diplo has done many other fine mixes covering styles from Baille Funk to classic Psych. 

10. Essential Mix – Air (1998)

There are a number of French acts that have produced DJ mixes of exemplar quality. Check out Pheonix's Kitsune Tabloid for one. Air really did excel as well though and this Radio 1 mix captures them at their best. Its all fairly mellow but its a lovely mix of the Theme from Mash, the Pharcyde, David Bowie and, somewhat predictably, Serge Gainsbourg.

9. The Document - Andy Smith

Smith was Portishead's resident DJ and this mix announced his arrival in his own right. Mixing up soul covers, funk, hip hop and beats cutting from track to track to create an exciting dancefloor mix. Includes one of my all time favourite Hip Hop songs - How you want it by Jungle Brothers featuring De La Soul as well as Marvyn Gaye and the Meters. Generally regarded as one of the best soul, funk and hip hop mixes (and there are no shortage of contenders).

8. Essential mix- Francois K (2000)

One of the definitive New York DJs. This mix by K covers many musical bases including African Drug by Bob Holroyd (just how many mixes has this track been on?!), Kraftwerk and Tribe Called Quest. The main focus though is obviously disco. Lisa Taylor's Did you Pray Today has reduced this listener to tears...

7. Logical Progression - LTJ Bukem (1996)

Drum n bass didn't leave us with much of a DJ mix legacy. A whole hour of breakbeats is too much for most people as a home listen. This mix focuses on the mellower side of the genre and focuses heavily on Bukem's own label mates including Peshay and PFM. The sound of outer space brought to the living room.

6. Renaissance- Sascha, John Digweed (1994)

You can't have a list of the best DJ mixes without having at least one straight house one. I've plumped for this because it contains some of the very biggest DJs of recent years but also because it hangs together pretty well. OK M People are on it but so are Leftfield. I suspect this was the first dance mix bought by a whole generation who had previously been buying Pop Will Eat Itself and Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine.

5. Monk's Dream - Monk One (2002)

Wax Poetics writer and New York DJ Monkone broke at the turn of the millenium. He specialises in latin influenced house, jazz and hip hop and this is probably his best mix. Opening with a Brazilian version of Rapper's Delight its perfect for a bar-b-que.

4. A Monstrous Psychedelic Bubble exploding in your mind -  Amorphous Androgynous (2008)

No matter how many DJ mixes you've listened to, I can assure you that you've never heard one like this. Taking the concept of psychedelia as its starting point the ex-Future Sound of London duo take us on a trip from Donovan to Miles Davis via the Psychonauts and David Axlerod. Noel Gallagher claimed this mix changed his life and I'd have to agree - I remember thinking upon hearing it that I could just listen to this one CD for the rest of my life. Extraordinarily ambitious in its scope and you hear something new every time. Volume 2 is great too.

 3. As heard on Radio Soulwax volume 2 - 2 Many DJs (2003)

 Another one that is wildly eclectic. Soulwax pretty much brought mash-ups (mixing two songs together to create one) to the mainstream with this album. Using Destiny's Child and the Stooges with Dolly Parton and 10CC might sound like a car crash on paper but because it's brilliantly mixed this appealed to the purists and the pop fans as one.

2. Gimix – The Avalanches (2000)

Certainly the only entry from Australia on this list. This mix was never officially released due to the sample clearance but reads like a history of popular culture. Bob Dylan - check. The Smiths - check. Michael Jackson - check. Despite its disparate styles the Avalanches make it seamless by mixing in their own disco house infused tracks. This is a perfect CD if you're hosting a do at home and want a bit of a party but no-one can be bothered to DJ. Whatever happened to them recording a second album?

1. Journeys by DJ – Coldcut (1995)
Unlike some of the mixes here (The Avalanches for example) this mix isn't timeless. Instead it takes you right back to the mid 1990's when Coldcut's Stealth night was the hottest night in London clubland. Focusing heavily on Ninja Tunes artists but also finding room for Boogie Down Productions, Masters at Work and even the Dr Who theme this is the art of the DJ mix perfectly realised. The listener is never quite sure where it is going next as the '70 minutes of madness' takes us from dub to hip hop via drum n bass and electronica and the spoken word samples perfectly fit the mood of paranoid, deep beats. Single tracks are seamlessly mixed to create something completely new - the ultimate articulation of a DJ.  The Wagon Christ remix of 2 Player's Extreme Possibilities is a perfect example of the sheer experimentalism that is the hallmark of UK dance culture. Almost 20 years later this is still yet to be bettered.