Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Drive By: New York's fledgling 2step scene
Sound of the City column, Village Voice,August 30th-September 5th, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

When subcultures are exported, they usually mutate interestingly in the process. A fair few folks are wondering whether 2step garage, the hottest dance scene in Britain right now, is going to take off here, and what path it might take. Drive By, the latest in a sporadic flurry of 2step parties, featured a bona fide Yookay Name DJ, Emma Feline, plus Reid Speed (also female, and for a long while the only local DJ pushing this sound), party organizer Dinesh, and DB. Its location was the Frying Pan, but the main dancefloor was on the Pier 63 quayside instead of the once-sunken boat's fantastically corroded interior—-doubtless because its Tool video/Quay Brothers ambience doesn't fit U.K. garage's plush, lush VIP vibe.

The Monday-night party recalled the first NYC jungle clubs in late '94—-a hardcore kernel of converted fiends, lots of curious fence-sitters, and an atmosphere of tentative excitement. Hipsters seem attracted by 2step's juddering bass and hypersyncopated beats (as complex as jungle at its creative peak), but confused or even repelled by the warbly divas and r&b influences. "Serious" techno and drum'n'bass headz tend to be sniffy about vocals, and one of the engaging things about 2step is its transgression of this taboo on sheer pop appeal.

Intriguingly, Reid Speed and Dinesh both bring a "deep" sensibility to 2step's glossy-surfaced instantaneousness ("deep" being house/techno code for "not blatantly tuneful") by focusing on less songful stuff—-all plinky xylo/marimba-style B-lines and tuned percussion. DB, being an English expat and a populist, is comfortable dropping such ultramelodic tracks as Shanks & Bigfoot's "Sing-A-Long" and the 2step remake of soppy piano-rave anthem "Sweet Harmony." Feline was authentically British in playing Big Tune after Big Tune, but her mixing was often sloppy and she didn't exhibit much flair for set building or vibe escalation. Still, the sheer implacable density of Big Tunes—-B15's "Girls Like This," Shola Ama's "Imagine," Gabrielle's "Sunshine"-—kept the converts on the floor. These high-pitched melisma selections also showcased another crucial aspect of 2step: the way that extreme treble can be as intense as extreme bass. The sensation is head-spinningly effervescent, like you've got champagne running through your veins.

Speaking of which, I didn't see one sign of the U.K. garage raver's fave tipple. Other differences: The dancing was more energetic, fluid, and expressive than the taut shoulder/hip/butt shaking you get in London clubs. Most striking of all was the utter absence of we-be-the-baddest-clique snootiness. In this respect, if no other, the fledgling American scene has the edge over its Brit blueprint.

Drive By's Birthday Bashment
Sound of the City column, Village Voice, July 18 - 24, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

New York's pioneering 2step garage party Drive By celebrated its first birthday in style with a riverside bashment at Pier 63 and a bill headlined by top-drawer U.K. talents Zed Bias and Deekline on July 3. Both DJ-producers are identified with "breakbeat garage," the inevitable backlash against 2step's mainstream crossover, and a mutant offshoot that strips away the r&b vocals and treble gloss in favor of bass-too-dark minimalism. Deekline's sound has virtually no connection to garage, but instead mashes up hip-hop, a lickle bitta dancehall, and whole lotta hardcore. He played two tracks that are basically unofficial remixes of rave-era Prodigy classics: the Max Romeo-pilfering "Out of Space" and the Arthur Brown-sampling "Fire." His absolute boom tune was uncharacteristically housey—Nu Yorican Soul's fevered "Runaway"—and other New York allusions flew by with licks ripped from Todd Terry and Mark the 45 King. Once again, you had to marvel at the Brits' verve (and nerve) at taking U.S. originals like hip-hop and house, then exporting them back to America as exotic hybrids.

Zed Bias's sound has more "swing," using U.K. garage's sticky snares and crisp, skippy hi-hats more often than the rigid, jackknifing electro beats favored by Deekline. Bias also has a stronger feel for the subliminal skank that is one of 2step's secret rhythmic ingredients: Tonight he dropped a great version of Tenor Saw's "Ring the Alarm" and climaxed with "Neighbourhood," his own dancehall-infused soundboy killer. "Neighbourhood," I've found, is the one tune that infallibly sways skeptics who profess to hate this music (usually based on hearing one Artful Dodger song). In this respect, Zed Bias is the Photek of 2step. Just as Photek drew people into drum'n'bass through his techno edge, five years on Bias seduces nonbelievers with the jungalistic feel of his 2step: growling sub-bass and mash-up beats, corseted within garage's plush elegance.

What a difference a year makes: With its crammed dancefloor and amazingly euphoric atmosphere, Drive By left one convinced that New York's 2step scene, after false starts and prematurely announced demises, is finally set to EXPLODE. The city now boasts several U.K.-level DJs (two of whom, Dinesh and Greg Poole, also played tonight) and a fervent core audience who really feel the music. Indeed I'd actually say the New York scene is better than its London prototype, which is increasingly blighted by moody attitude, gangsta bizness, and violence. In the London underground there's always been this weird mismatch between the music's effervescent joy and the crowd's screwface sourness. But New York has "corrected" that discrepancy. There's never been a better time to join the party.
"Red Alert/Yo Yo"
"Rendez-Vu/Jump 'N Shout"
director's cut, Village Voice, February 23rd, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

Nobody exemplifies the promiscuous impurism of late-'90s house music better than Basement Jaxx, the South London duo of Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe. On their two recent singles (four A sides + dub versions = an album's worth of stuff), virtually every track creates a new subgenre. "Red Alert" is P-Funk house: Bootsy slap-bass, g-funk synth, a chorus of psychedelic dwarves. Flipside "Yo Yo" has been hailed as "punk garage," for the Nirvana/Pixies heft of its fuzzed-out bass riff. But the chorus reminds me of Jamie Principle's eroto-mystic house classic "Baby Wants To Ride." If Prince-wannabe Principle had ever got to make his own Sign of The Times, it might have sounded like Basement Jaxx.

On the most recent single, "Jump 'n Shout" is ragga-house driven by a flagrant, in-yer-face thug of a bassline and hectic patois patter; "Rendez-Vu" could be either "flamenco-house" or "The Genre Formerly Known as House," meshing Castilian guitar flurries, Zapp-style vocoder ditties, and a lush Prince-like decadence. Where most dance producers make a virtue of creative thrift, Buxton and Ratcliffe are maximalists: instead of interminable loops, you get new patterns every couple bars, sonic singularities, an insanity of detail, and a mix riddled with dub-wise wormholes. Yet the Basement boys' sonic largesse never degenerates into eclectic whimsy or that multilayered-but-not- integrated form of additive composition that undoes so much computer-based music.

The duo's debut album, due for April release, reveals even wilder twists to the contours of house as hitherto known— like "Don't Give Up," a quiet Sturm und Drang ballad of billowing acid-bass and Scott Walker strings. Remedy looks set to do for house what Reprazent's New Forms did for jungle in '97— explode the genre's parameters, and grab the ear of the wider world beyond.

BASEMENT JAXX, interview
The Wire, summer 1999

by Simon Reynolds

Without fanfare, house has crept forward to become the leading edge of dance culture again, like it was over a decade ago. It's managed to sidestep the grimly purist rut that's ensnared minimal techno and drum and bass ; rather than getting paranoid about stylistic contamination and bastardy, late Nineties house is pragmatically open to outside influence. Slyly, it assimilates rhythmatic and texturological tricks from overtly experimental forms of electronica, then resituates them in a juicier pleasure-principled context. As a result, late Nineties house encompasses a huge range of flavas: Stardust/Roule/Daft Punk-style disco cut-ups, Herbert's voluptuously textured future-jazz, Green Velvet's tripped-out story-songs over harsh machinic grid-grooves. And then there's Basement Jaxx--Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe--whose music is so promiscuously impurist it should really be dubbed The Genre Formerly Known As House.

The Jaxx boys' first three EPs were lumped in with the mid-Nineties wave of "Nu-House," British outfits such as Faze Action and Idjut Boys. But Buxton & Ratcliffe soon got fed up with that scene's snobbery and authenticity fetish--the obsession with reproducing the sound of "Loft classics" (disco productions by Larry Levan and Francois Kevorkian popular at New York underground clubs in the 1970s and early Eighties).

"Nu House was good at first," says Ratcliffe, "but it quickly became dull and smug--'we know what the cool records are, we're replicating them, and isn't it groovy?'" Having rapidly achieved their initial goal--mastering the skills of contemporary US house auteurs they admired like Masters At Work and Mood II Swing--Basement Jaxx were hungry for new challenges. "In the beginning, we were just trying to be house producers," says Ratcliffe. "Now we're trying *not* to be house producers."

The Genre Formerly Known As House tag fits because Prince and his balancing act of identity-through-constant-flux is an aesthetic model for Basement Jaxx. Their debut album Remedy recalls Sign O' The Times in its insanely detailed production, compulsive stylistic hybridity, and warped vocal multitrackings. Above all, it's Prince-ly in its maximalist-not-minimalist extravagance--ideas that other producers might spin out for entire tracks occur as sonic singularities, gratuitous one-offs. "We want you to hear something different each time you listen," says Ratcliffe. "Hopefully we don't over-confuse people by putting too many things in. Then again, you want to be slightly baffled by music, don't you?"

Remedy's most jaw-droppingly disconcerting moment might be the point in "Same Old Show" where the listener realises the tune pivots around a sample from "On My Radio" by ska group The Selector--a short phrase of eerie vocal counterpoint brilliantly isolated from its perky Two-Tone context and looped to monstrously mantric effect. A protest against the formulaic homogeneity of dance music, "Same Old Show" gets it message across as much through its sound as the "it's just the same old show" sample. "There's a kind of ugliness to it," decides Ratcliffle. "A lot of the original Chicago house music was done by people who really weren't that musical, in the traditional sense. But the wrongness gave it a real excitement . It's good not to be too safe about being in tune or having correct timing. 'Same Old Show' isn't about musical cohesion, really-- it's about energy, and oddness."

Waxing lyrical about the scuzz appeal of Camberwell (where the duo's studio is based) compared with chic neighbour Brixton, Ratcliffe says the Jaxx are "anti-style... Our music's saying 'fuck off' to things everyone thinks are cool." In this Camberwell spirit, the Jaxx put a deliberate record-skipping effect into "Yo Yo," another Remedy stand-out. Combined with a simultaneous bassline change, the skip, says Buxton "makes you feel like everything's slipped. It's great because it's like a *new sensation*. And that's a bit of our jazz attitude--like Coltrane pushing his instrument, doing things that initially sounded totally wrong, and it's only later you realise 'that was music all along''.

Also citing jazz as an influence, Ratcliffe describes the Jaxx methodology as "freestyling-- we freestyle in our programming". The duo jam with their machines to create things like the strobing, wobbly-fingers-in-your-earhole effect in "Razo-Caine" (a fantastic bonus track on the recently re-released "Red Alert" single). "With that, I was playing the samples live on the keyboard and pitchbending them," explains Buxton, "Simultaneously Simon's EQing what I'm doing on the desk, effecting them, and placing them within the track."

Where Buxton's musical trajectory (digging Gilles Peterson's jazz-dance scene in the late Eighties, organising his own underground house parties in Brixton in the early Nineties) is oriented around club culture, Ratcliffe's background has oscillated wildly--from playing guitar in jazz-funk bands to making hardcore rave tunes under the name Tic Tac Toe. Fondly recalling the days when his breakbeat anthem "Ephemeral" got remixed by Fabio, Grooverider and Mickey Finn, Ratcliffe describes 'ardkore as a positive example of "the technology taking over. And it was so English--unsophisticated, full of attitude and energy. They used illegal samples, made vocals so high they sounded ridiculous--but it worked. It's that same punk spirit that we're trying to incorporate into our music."

Indeed, Basement Jaxx call what they do "punk garage". This nicely punning inversion suggests a spiritual kinship with speed garage--like Jaxx trax, a smooth and sexy New York sound ruffed up with English attitude. In the awesome "Jump 'N Shout", Buxton & Ratcliffe managed to create a bolshy, boisterous ragga-house hybrid that parellels but sounds nothing like speed garage, while the gorgeous hypersyncopated ballad "You Can't Stop Me" echoes 2step's infatuation with Timbaland-style beat-science. And the re-released "Red Alert" comes with a remix from two-step auteur Steve Gurley.

Like London's underground garage crews, Basement Jaxx brilliantly combine songful musicality and trackhead FX-mania, human fluency and machinic angularity, high production values and digital dirt, jazz and punk. In the past, they've swung back and forth on a song by song basis--from the sultry Latin house of "Samba Magic" and "Fly Life" to the evil drug-noise of "Raw Sh*t" and "Set Yo Body Free". But now they're meshing those extremes inside the same track. Take "Don't Give Up", simultaneously Remedy's most accomplished and most deranged track--a quiet Sturm und Drang ballad reeling between Scott Walker strings and nauseously roiling billows of acid-bass. The song's about how you can dig yourself a deep hole by thinking too deeply: the chorus beseeches "don't pull the cracks in your mind apart." And it reflects the trepidation Jaxx felt as they started recording Remedy.

"We were on this precipice, looking down," recalls Ratcliffe. " We'd talk a lot about what should we be doing. That song is like us saying 'let's just get on with it'. So instead of working our way up to it, we did did the most experimental track first. It was us forgetting about dance music altogether."

Tuesday, April 8, 2008