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Mixed messages

Fabric mixes from Craig Richards and Goldie and a DJ-Kicks mix from Motor City Drum Ensemble


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In rock or pop, the points on an artist's career arc tend to be albums and singles. But for dance DJs, things get complicated. There, the mix is as primary a format as the 12-inch or CD.

Beat-matched compilations date back at least to 1974, when Spring Records released the nonstop-segued Disco Par-r-r-ty, but rave made them the norm. Early comps on labels like Moonshine Music often ran

everything together with Pro Tools, even when no DJ was credited. But though "unofficial" DJ mix tapes have been ubiquitous in dance culture for decades, in the pre-Napster era they were mostly local phenomena—only in the past five years or so have they become widespread on the Internet. Early-90s mixes tended to be snapshots, though, rather than the kind of portraits more ambitious DJs began creating in the mid-90s. Coldcut's 1995 entry in the Journeys by DJ series, 70 Minutes of Madness, remains a model for many: with its style hopping and obvious edits and drop-ins, it develops like a canvas being painted. Indeed, it's regarded more highly than Coldcut's studio albums.

DJ mix series can't rely on traditional hook-based songcraft or on personas revealed in lyrics, so they tend to sell themselves as brand names. (Journeys by DJ was one of the first.) A series tends to have a defined profile, no matter how much its volumes may differ—and in a good series, the mixes do differ from one another, often wildly but always cannily. That's particularly true of three highly regarded mix series, DJ-Kicks (issued by Berlin label !K7) and Fabric and FabricLive (both released by three-room London superclub Fabric). All three have new volumes out, which provides the occasion for this review.

Well, OK—there's always a new Fabric or FabricLive out, since both issue new titles bimonthly, with their schedules staggered so that they don't skip a month. Both aim to represent or evoke recent sets played at the club, though few of the mixes are live recordings—DJs' impulses don't always jibe with copyright holders' wishes. The difference between the two is that Fabric emphasizes four-on-the-floor styles like house and techno, while FabricLive ventures into syncopated terrain (dubstep, jungle, hip-hop) as well as more deliberately eclectic mixes, such as John Peel's 2002 release FabricLive 07, the only compilation he assembled to be released during his lifetime. A dozen mixes a year can't cover everything—dance music, it moves fast—but it can come close.

Dance music is also laden with history, and its culture can be just as fond of looking back as the larger culture is. It does this via reissues, of course, as well as with new tracks that hark back to everything from late-80s Chicago house (Steve Bug's "Jack Is Back") to early UK jungle (Bass Clef's "Rollercoasters of the Heart"). To some degree, Craig Richards's Fabric 58 (on which he "presents" his alter ego the Nothing Special), Goldie's FabricLive 58, and Motor City Drum Ensemble's entry in the DJ-Kicks series all look back as well, though none are precisely retrospectives. There are old tracks on all three, but the Fabric mixes carry dance music's history less in what exactly gets mixed and more in who's doing the mixing.

Craig Richards has been a music director and resident DJ at Fabric since it opened in 1999. In 2001 he mixed the inaugural Fabric 01; in 2004, as half of Tyrant, he mixed Fabric 15, the series's only double CD to date. Richards is hardly self-indulgent, though: as befits his position, he's adaptable, diverse, and tasteful. On 01 he leans toward the freaky and percussive; 15 remains a useful overview of mid-00s German techno, even though not everything on it is German.

The Nothing Special is Richards's alias for when he DJs between live sets (as opposed to between other DJs), and Fabric 58 has a deliberate quality that suits such a setting. The mix isn't downtempo—it just builds gradually and subtly. Things don't hit anything like a peak till more than halfway in, when the glassy tech-house synths of Joel Mull's "Leaving Ground" ramp up to the bare, jacking pulse of Marcel Janovsky's "Vamos a Otro Piso"; after that only Johnny Fiasco's "Kalimba" really jumps. It's the kind of steady-state mix that normal humans will find pleasant if not especially compelling but that dance adepts will pick over for details—not because the material is so fascinating but because Richards is such a well-respected old hand. Only one other person has even made two Fabric mixes, and this is his third.

Goldie is even more of a London club-world fixture than Richards. With his 1995 debut LP, Timeless, he helped establish drum 'n' bass as an albums medium, not just the domain of singles and mixes. Since then he's made movie and TV cameos as an assortment of two-bit gangsters (that's him in the 1999 James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough) and placed second in the 2008 season of the British reality series Maestro (he missed a shot at conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra), in the process becoming a folk hero in England even among those with no use for pitch-shifted breakbeats.

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