Cool Cats and Dirtchambers

Since the 1990s, the boundary between electronic musician, producer and DJ has been a question of pure market distinction:  (supposedly) electronic musicians finely craft soundscapes in their cobbled-together studios, producers provide electronic backing and mixing to “live” artists, and DJs assemble impromptu mixes for parties outside of the studio.  But anyone in the industry could cut these distinctions down as bullshittery in an instant — most people who do one are fully capable of doing all three roles well (or four, if you count the dubious term “remixer”).  In fact, I’d even wager everybody’s an electronic musician of some kind.  Have you ever made a mixtape?  An iTunes music list?  If yes, you’ve engaged in a similar curatorial effort to those employed as DJs or electronic musicians, meticulously selecting/arranging samples.  But doubtlessly some people do have a leg up over the rest of us in terms of quality.

Anyhow, the issue at hand is really the electronic artist-curated mix CD.  Halfway between a DJ set and a personal home playlist, these CDs have more than anything else clued me into the musical origins/influences of my favorite artists.  Every selection becomes a statement, and every mash-up or beat-matched song combo a revelation about musical possibilities.  This is musical education incarnate, live and direct from an artist whom you like and who, like you, was once a kid listening to other artists and so on.  But the rights for an ideal music education are a prized commodity.  Some of those can get expensive, which is why only celebrity DJs/electronic musicians/producers/remixers (okay, awkward neologism time: depremixers!) with deep-pocketed labels can afford to put out their definitive mixes to enlighten and rock out their listening public.  The tension between two mixes in particular intrigues me to no end.

Case 1 – The Dirtchamber Sessions by The Prodigy (1999)

I’m a giant Prodigy fan, from Liam Howlett’s teenage keyboard noodling on the What Evils Lurks EP and The Experience (1991) to the wry samples on Music for the Jilted Generation (1995), from  the aggro-breaks of “Smack My Bitch Up” and “Breathe” on The Fat of the Land (1997) to the laptop mania of Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned (2004).  Their songs combine rock samples, no-nonsense drum loops and acid synths with MC work by vocalist-dancers Keith Flint and Maxim to form an entirely idiosyncratic and immediately recognizable sound.  There is essentially a “Prodigy style” that they have to live up to on each album, and they continue to do so even with their recent Invaders Must Die (2009). Howlett’s 1999 mixtape The Dirtchamber Sessions thankfully gives us a little insight into the progenitors of his band’s sound.

If you look at the track list, several facts become apparent:

1. No Kraftwerk to be seen.
2. Half the artists are African-American.
3. Nods to fellow big beat artists Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and Propellerheads. The Prodigy *gasp*, too.
4. Mash-ups of hip-hop, punk and funk in equal measure, with some added keyboard action as transitions.
5. Dramaturgy guides the endeavour, with musically scripted highs and lows.

Overall, Howlett appears guided by artists from fairly humble origins who were cutting together pop, jazz and funk tidbits to create an innovative, living sound.  Several successes include his mash-up of Propellerheads’ “Spybreak” with the Beastie Boys’ “Time to Get Ill” or LL Cool J’s “Get Down” with “Humpty Dance” by Digital Underground.  The album actually introduced me to the greatness of Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy in one fell swoop, and got me into the old skool hip-hop sound in general.

In any case, I know of few artists who would have assembled such a mix and put it forth with such confidence.  What’s more, there are definite stylistic breaks from what we would consider the Prodigy sound:  the B-Boys paired with Babe Ruth, for example, or Primal Scream. In any case, the Prodigy successfully conveyed the gems of its generation onto my generation, interesting me in artists leading in divergent directions — but whom I now loosely associate with The Prodigy.

Case 2 – Cool Cats by Justice (2009)

Enter our generation, represented by the French superstar group Justice (who actually only have one major album – † (2007) – to their credit).  The Prodigy actually cited Justice as a major influence on the formation of Invaders Must Die, particularly their glitchy, bass-driven form of French house.  The Ed Banger sound, exemplified by artists such as Busy P, DJ Mehdi, or SebastiAn, reached its apogee under Justice’s watch and is still a major player in the club scene for Europeans in their early-to-mid-20s.

Anyway, they apparently put together a tracklist for the Ed Banger “Cool Cat DJ” crew, which then somebody else mixed for them.  So I don’t actually know who has agency for this thing, but it certainly relates genealogically to the Dirtchamber sessions:  artists publicizing the music that influences them.

Looking at the tracklist, we can make the following observations:

1. Oh, there’s Kraftwerk.
2. Most of the artists are white European electronica artists.
3. Nods to Prodigy and Fatboy Slim, but goes out of its way to prove its edge-y cred: Aphex Twin, Basement Jaxx, and Audion. And Justice, of course.
4. Assorted electronic noise is added to tracks –  in the “Justice” style.
5. Endeavors are made to keep the energy level as high as possible — even older hits are sped up.

Most of the tracks I actually owned as a mainstream electronica fans, meaning that they are as well.  Rather than absolutely identifying with their taste, I am instead sensing a careerist tinge:  they are profiling themselves with their/our favorite artists, rather than paying homage to them.  In effect, I listen to the Cool Cats mix and learn nothing new about myself as an electronica listener, only an affirmation that A) big beat was/is cool and B) this should rub off on Justice and their Ed Banger friends.  This is disappointing in particular because the Ed Banger Rec. series is otherwise so well conceived.  And though Justice’s sound may have raised the bar with regard to hard-edged dancefloor party-mixes, their inspiration comes from a place that cannot inspire me.

Put another way:  Schoedsack and Cooper created the (horribly colonialist) masterpiece King Kong (1933) because they had been “adventurers” and “explorers” which qualified them to project fantasies about places they had, in fact, visited.  Peter Jackson created the 2005 King Kong on the basis of, well, the fact that he had seen and enjoyed King Kong.  I feel this one level of media remove affects the Prodigy / Justice split as well:  the Prodigy drew on the roots of funk and hip-hop, and communicate the enthusiasm about it; Justice drew on those who drew on those roots, and feel sufficiently divorced from the source material to self-aggrandize as artists-who-rock-the-party.

Listening to them back-to-back prompted this rant, and now that it is done, I’m going to put on The Dirtchamber Sessions again…

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