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.
Time can be a funny, flubbery thing in dance music, where -- when the mood and vibe are just right -- something as strict as a 4/4 beat set at a certain BPM looses the confines of time and space into something transcendent. And while the notion of ‘retromania’ might afflict pop and rock, dance music by its very nature can be rooted in the past and sound futuristic while existing solely in the present moment.
Two excellent dance albums released earlier this year: DJ Nature’s Return of the Savage and Jorge Velez’s The MMT Tapes, emanate not from this year, nor even from last, but from tracks originally conceived in the 20th century, some over 20 years old. “The DJ Nature releases are actually a bunch of old stuff I had left over from 91-92,” DJ Nature (née Milo Johnson) wrote to me via email. “I had stopped releasing material back then, but continued working on things, more out of a sense of creative release than anything else. I didn't have a plan for releasing the material when I was doing it.”
For the history averse, DJ Nature was once known DJ Milo, founding member of the crucial Bristol sound-system collective, the Wild Bunch. And as that group splintered into other entities, DJ Milo went east, joining forces with the influential Japanese trip-hop collective, Major Force, before relocating to New York City. And only in 2010 did Milo emerge to make some new noise as DJ Nature.
So while some of the earliest DJ Nature singles (see “Win Lose and Dance” and “This Side of Heaven”) might have been conceived during the George H.W. Bush administration, they proved to be evergreen productions: funky, wiggly, soulful, house-y, almost 2-step friendly, gospel-tinged, downtempo yet fuzzed-out. Return of the Savage expands that template ever so slightly. Vocal samples abound -- culled from artist interviews, from television, from old soul records, even from pornos (see the two-part “Sexual Tension”)-- but in Nature’s hands, all this calico sound some convenes into a satisfying whole. The title track builds from a cooed vocal hook before a spidery electric keyboard figure skitters across a stomping hi-hat and kick. “Real Talk” has talk about soul singing as a church-like congregation swells behind it, while the uptempo “1970” features some jazz saxophone riding atop it. Churning throughout the album, Nature’s way with pliant basslines and snapping drum sounds reveals a craftsman who’s been making dancefloors move since I was in elementary school.
New Jersey native Jorge Velez was a teen when he fell under the thrall of early electronic music emanating from Detroit, Chicago, as well as his homestate. “I wanted to learn to make music the way all the guys in Detroit did: with hardware and as little gear as possible,” Velez wrote to me via email. “What inspired me were the possibilities that each machine could present in tandem. It’s infinite what you can still do with just two or three machines playing together.” From just a few components: Yamaha CS1x, Ensoniq SQ80, Casio CZ101, Alesis SR16, Boss Dr Sample, Yamaha RX5, Velez made numerous tracks that drew from house, acid, garage, and the burgeoning UK IDM scene from 1996 through 1999 (when he was in his 20s), before he finally updated from his MMT-8 hardware sequencer to his first Powerbook (with 1GB of memory).
Sixteen of those tracks finally see release as J Velez MMT Tapes Series (on Rush Hour). Velez has been on the NYC scene since the early '00s, doing analog synth explorations as Professor Genius, cutting funky disco edits as one-half of Bim Marx, and last year releasing some imaginary soundtrack work as Hassan for the L.I.E.S. imprint, but the MMT Tapes reveal Velez at his most playful. “Someone recently wrote that I was inspired to do this music by hearing a Drexciya record,” he said, “which isn’t quite true. At that particular time, I remember I was listening to a lot of Morricone, dub reggae, Detroit Techno and going to parties at Shelter and to warehouse parties in deep Brooklyn, before gentrification set in there.”
That eclectic sound palette is evident from opening track “Luminous View,” which takes a walking jazz bassline and quickly turns it into a slice of Aphex Twin-esque braindance, adding echoing congas and clanging windchime FX, the track constantly evolving and finding new regions of sound. While it’s relatively easy to build tracks via computer and get everything precise, it was rather arduous going back then. In building the gurgling, whirring, infectious tracks here, Velez recalls the recording process: “Any overdubs were played live as recording was happening. There was no way to erase stuff. If you messed up you had to start from scratch: rewind that tape, reset your levels.”
Tape hiss gives everything here a bit of warmth, suggests an alternate reality to the prevalent Jersey garage house sound that dominated that era. At times, it’s the sound of wonder itself, a head full of warehouse party echoes dumping imagined sounds to tape in the wee hours after dancing all night, wide-eyed and wide-eared. Only none of it left Velez’s room for over a decade. But as his newer productions garnered notice and inspired a new generation of Brooklynites holed up in their loftspaces making noise on hardware components, these tracks found an audience. “I tested some of it out the other night in a live set and it had people freakin’!” he said. “Everything has its time and this music is moving people who hear it now.” Nevermind that decades have passed, it still sounds like now.
DJ Nature's album Return of the Savage is out now via Golf Channel recordings.
Jorge Velez's album J Velez MMT Tape Series 1996-1999 is out now via Rush Hour.