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.
Despite the modern dance music era commencing some four decades ago with the rise of disco, the dance music canon for the most part remains an unwieldy, sprawling thing, as opposed to the canons of classic rock and classical music. Rock gets canonized and re-packaged and re-sold in part because it’s easy to point to big statement full-length albums, but dance music always eludes such a grasp. Take for example UK prog-rock band, Babe Ruth: they would never be considered part of the canon, much less placed alongside the likes of Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton or the Rolling Stones. But because of one song on their 1972 debut that featured a killer drum break, Babe Ruth’s “The Mexican” is downright crucial to dance music. It was a cornerstone cut at David Mancuso’s The Loft. In the Bronx, that drum beat powered DJ Kool Herc’s block parties, graced Grandmaster Flash’s turntables and was appropriated on “Planet Rock.” When Jellybean Benitez reworked it, it became a Latin freestyle staple. It then got reworked into a house anthem by Todd Terry later in the '80s.
Dance music has always been a more subjective type of music, more about context, about moments in the mix, never beholden to genre much less to over-arching statements. You get shitloads of pointless Elvis Costello and Fleetwood Mac reissues ad nauseam, but very little crucial dance music albums wind up getting the reissues they deserve. But two massive albums emanating from electronic dance music’s birthplace of Detroit got reissued this past month (on triple vinyl, no less), suggesting that with the resurgence of electronic dance music, more vital reissues may finally begin to see the light of day.
One comes from one of the godfathers of techno music, Carl Craig. While not a member of the hallowed Belleville Three -- the Detroit teens (Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson) who took their love of electro and Kraftwerk and created the musical form that came to be called techno -- Carl Craig was one of the music’s earliest apostles. And in the decades since, Carl Craig remains a totemic figure in electronic music, expanding into experimental modular synth sounds, improvised jazz and more with aplomb. He began releasing music under the aliases such as Psyche and BFC when still in his early 20s and those earliest transmissions are finally reissued after some seventeen years spent out of print.
Now pressed on loud and deep triple vinyl, PsycheBFC – Elements 1989-1990 highlights quite the year for Craig. Working closely with Derrick May at the very end of the 80s, Craig utilized a 4-track, Prophet synth, Alesis MMT8 sequencer and borrowed HR-16 drum machine to create wholly new worlds of sound. A track like “Elements” highlights Craig’s touch: warm, luminescent synth melodies melded to complex yet visceral drum programming. And yet the man’s sense of humor is evident as well, from the name BFC (which stands for Betty Ford Clinic) to having one of his most driving and ethereal tracks called “Chicken Noodle Soup,” complete with him uttering at track’s end (in a manner that should have Campbell’s ad agency reaching out for licensing): “It’s nutritious/ I want my chicken noodle soup.” And on a track like “Neurotic Behavior” (presented here in its beatless mix), one can hear the future sounds of Boards of Canada, Steve Moore, Ame and Hieroglyphic Being in its matrices.
Another Detroit producer also had one of his career-defining musical statements reappear on triple vinyl this month. Part of the second generation of Detroit master swordsmen (including Kenny Dixon Jr. and Omar-S), Theo Parrish released his third full-length Sound Sculptures Volume 1 back in spring of 2007, but it immediately disappeared from shops, soon fetching stupid sums of money on the web. For the uninitiated, few modern music producers are as singular and inscrutable as Parrish. As a DJ, his sets are known to challenge or else plain ignore audience expectations: He’s as liable to play a free jazz set as he is to move between techno, house and soul with little hesitation. As a producer, Parrish has an uncanny knack for making the most sparse and unballasted of tracks pulse with soul. A lone kick drum, some Rhodes piano, a cooed vocal line, out of such minimal sounds Parrish can mesmerize for hours on end.
Sound Sculptures Volume 1 highlights how Parrish can range across the spectrum of African-American music while still sounding like himself. There’s supple vocal soul track like “They Say,” as well as a low-slung yet tense ten-minute “Soul Control” that by turns sounds like something Chaka Khan might have sung while also growling like a menacing acid track played at the wrong speed. “The Rink” no doubt springs from Detroit roller-rink dance parties while another track samples Marvin Gaye’s voice to great effect. Sometimes evoking spiritual jazz, others knee-deep funk, outer space at other moments, the set is a gateway to one of dance music’s greatest iconoclasts, a dance music producer who once told Resident Advisor: “Tempo is irrelevant – whether or not the foot is on the one, the two, the three is irrelevant. It's about each specific song making sense to me.” These are massive sculptures that only make sense when danced about.
Psyche BFC's album Elements 1989-1990 is out now via Planet E.
Theo Parrish's album Sound Sculptures Vol. 1 is out now via Sound Signature.