Dance Moves On
The lineup of showcases to accompany the Billboard Dance Music Summit, which rolls back into town Wednesday, presents some of the strongest evidence yet regarding the impact of electronica on this side of the pond: it hasn't exactly swept the pop world as predicted, but it's given American dance music a real kick in the ass. Though the roster is loaded with the usual club divas and well-known house DJs, a dense cluster of shows, booked mostly at Metro, gives it a considerably more progressive tilt. This year area jungle fans will get a peek at New York's burgeoning drum 'n' bass scene, local audiences can judge for themselves whether some industry-anointed next big things live up to the hype, and a few international underground stars will make their Chicago debuts.
Drum 'n' bass, though an English phenomenon, is partly rooted in American hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall, so it's interesting to see American artists adopting it as a foreign influence. New York's young drum 'n' bass scene, like Chicago's, still revolves largely around DJs spinning records made in England, but some are starting to make their own music. Emissaries from the Konkrete Jungle, a loosely affiliated group of New York DJs that started a transient club night back in 1994, will anchor a bill at Metro on Thursday, July 17. As heard on his forthcoming Rinsimus Maximus (Smile), DJ Dara's own work sounds like little more than a mishmash of various British styles--which themselves seem to splinter into tinier subgenres on a weekly basis--but he's got a terrific reputation as a DJ, and he'll be spinning here. The debut of his Konkrete compatriot DJ Soul Slinger, Don't Believe (Jungle Sky), though not groundbreaking, at least feels more like a product of New York, as frenetic breakbeats and the participation of MC TC Islam nod to the city's continued dominance in underground hip-hop. Islam will perform with Soul Slinger for part of his set.
It hasn't happened to the Konkrete crew yet, but other strong regional dance scenes, anchored by small labels, have been brought up to the majors over the last year. The Ovum label, founded by Philadelphia artists Josh Wink and King Britt, almost immediately got a distribution deal with Columbia; Los Angeles's City of Angels label struck a similar arrangement with the Geffen-affiliated Outpost Recordings. Both labels will present their brightest lights here this week, but they're all comparatively dim bulbs. LA's Crystal Method, whose forthcoming release will be the first under City of Angels' new deal, sound like a grade-school version of the Chemical Brothers (quite a feat in its own way, I guess); they perform Friday at Metro. Wink, a favorite on the rave circuit, is one of electronica's great crossover hopes, but there's very little in his music to recommend him to broader audiences. His plinky techno may keep the kids on the dance floor, but it can hardly keep me awake on the couch. Britt, the brains behind Sylk 130, pairs tough hip-hop beats with flimsy soul samples and florid female vocals with uninspired male rapping on his forthcoming When the Funk Hits the Fan; the result testifies mostly to the shriveled potential of acid jazz.
Wink and Britt go on late at Metro on Wednesday; if you must go, at least get there by nine so you can duck down to Smart Bar, where Tokyo's United Future Organization will be making its Chicago debut. This veteran DJ trio started out proffering the same sort of listless mix Sylk 130 now does, but its new album, 3rd Perspective (Antilles), looks and sounds like the sound track to a good crime thriller, with atmospheres a la Henry Mancini and John Barry, Latin American grooves, hip-hop breakbeats, and 60s soul-jazz strut.
One of the most promising shows of the week isn't actually a part of the conference: the Logical Progression Tour, which arrives at the House of Blues this Sunday, features British drum 'n' bass artist LTJ Bukem, whose own labels, Looking Good and Good Looking, have popularized the sort of jazzy grooves and pastel synth textures he himself purveys. In the wrong hands what he does can sound like the clubland equivalent of Kenny G. But as the recent compilation Logical Progression Level 2 makes plain, Bukem and label mates Blame, DRS, and MC Conrad have maintained their edge, using provocative rhythms and a minimum of fusak sax tooting. If all else failed, Conrad alone could prevent the energy level from dipping to dentist's-office lows.
Eric Babcock, one of the three founders of Bloodshot Records, has left to run the new Checkered Past label with old friends Yvonne Jones and Larry Lipson. Babcock, who coordinated production for the venerable Flying Fish folk label until it was bought out by Rounder in 1995, attempted to juggle Bloodshot and Checkered Past for some time, but decided at the end of May that he had to choose. He says the new label, like Bloodshot, will also traffic in Americana, and claims it will both cover a greater range of music and focus on more traditional approaches than the "insurgent country" imprint.
Out already is Town of Ten, the debut from the Old Joe Clarks, a Kansas trio with a good mix of twang and tarnish. Next month Checkered Past will release The Neighborhood Is Changing, the debut of quirky Nashville singer-songwriter Tom House; he's backed by members of indie-rock country favorites Lambchop. An album by Lonesome Bob, who with House appeared on Bloodshot's compilation Nashville: The Other Side of the Alley last year, is slated for September. The partners also hope to reissue some vintage honky-tonk from the 50s and 60s. "I would like to see this label have something of the range that Flying Fish had," Babcock says. "There was very much a John Cage mentality at work there--you know, where 'it fits because we say it fits.'"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): United Future Organization photo by Norbert Schoemer.