Orphaned, Obscure Soul Finds a Home on 'Personal Space'

Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-1984

Every week or thereabouts, Mutant Dance Moves takes you to the shadowy corners of the dancefloor and the fringes of contemporary electronic music, where new strains and dance moves are evolving.

few years ago, a beat-digger friend came over and dumped a few staggering, if poorly tagged, MP3s on my laptop. There was a track that seemed like a parallel universe version of Marvin Gaye’s 1979 single “Ego Tripping” featuring continental US shout-outs from a fellow named Walt Whisenhunt, a seven-minute version of Prince’s “Irresistible Bitch” that might be the man’s freakiest peak in a veritable mountain chain of them, as well as this track simply labeled “Makers.” And no, it was not the garage rock band.

There was a coffee percolator of guitar and synth dripping, a wheeze, squelch, bump, oop, and snap of drums and then the sexiest coo of “I’ll submit all of me to you” to ever emanate from a drainpipe. It was the missing link between the primitive electro wheezers like Dick Hyman’s bleated James Brown cover, Perrey and Kingsley’s “One Note Samba” and Hot Butter’s “Popcorn” and the type of skeletal funk that Sly and the Family Stone were digging out of Manson’s graveyard circa There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Try as I might though, the Makers was un-Googleable; There was only this three-minute masterpiece to tantalize and bedevil my ears.

So imagine the shock and relief when that telltale sputter and thump came on some eight tracks into Chocolate Industries’ sterling new compilation Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974 – 1984 (out last week on April 16). In a realm of countless soul and funk reissues, this is simply put one of the strongest sets of music to be unearthed in the past decade. The brainchild of crate-digging Renaissance man Dante Carfagna (who can sometimes be found DJing thousand-dollar 45s alongside DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist) and label head Marvin “Seven” Bedard, Personal Space is the result of nearly a decade’s worth of work. “Dante and I worked together on a reissue of McNeal & Niles’ Thrust and when I would go over to his place, he would play me that Makers 45,” said Bedard told me via email. “There were only three known copies of it. And I think DJ Shadow has the other two.”

For Carfagna, it was tracks like that, as well as a few other oddities, that piqued his interest in the project. “In the wake of finding this Guitar Red LP (see track 2: “Disco From a Space Show”), I asked some collectors if they knew any soul singles that had drum machine backing and a certain lonely atmosphere,” said Carfagna. Of paramount interest to his sensibilities was a sound powered by nascent drum machine and synthesizer technology that wound up landing just beyond the parameters of soul and funk music. More often than not, they were LPs and 45s that were privately pressed up, “Capturing individuals that recorded alone on equipment initially meant for creating demos coupled with these very personal visions,” said Carfagna. “That last attribute was paramount.”

Powered solely by devices such as Lowery Organ presets, Maestro drum machines, the Wurlitzer Sideman, as well as Roland CR 78s and 808s, the sixteen lost artists captured here traveled to the furthermost reaches of inner space. There’s the cavernous space jazz noise from the amazingly-ranked Starship Commander Woo Woo, Spontaneous Overthrow’s woozy acceptance of “Money,” the Dam-Funk and Ariel Pink-siring of Jeff Phelps’ satin sheeted “Super Lady,” the urgent plea of Jerry Green’s “I Finally Found the Love I Need.”

That lonesome sound links these disembodied artists together, and Bedard hears something else as well. “I don’t know if they were musical or social, but there’s a sense of frustration in dealing with other humans, something that pushed them to making this machine-assisted music.” So the loverman moves of U.S. Aries’ “Are You Ready to Come?” and the downright bizarre cry of “Ecstasyyyy!” on the New Year’s “My Bleeding Wound” feel estranged, as if there’s no betrothed to direct them at. Which makes them all the more endearing for Carfagna. “These were all records that are orphans in a way; they’re not funk, not modern soul, not Northern Soul, not gospel, not boogie,” he said. “But the real beauty lies in the undying belief of the creators that their art was worth hearing.” Some three to four decades on, all of that isolation, frustration and beauty can be heard again for the very first time.

Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-1984 is out now via Chocolate Industries.