Chicago house producer Roy Davis Jr. makes no bones about his belief in the afterlife--it's been a theme in his music since 1995, and last week he informed me that "what's important to me is getting to the kingdom." Musically speaking, though, Davis has already led several lives in the last decade and a half--few dance music figures have been able to reinvent themselves as often or as successfully as he has. This week the Montreal-based Bombay label released Traxx From the Nile, the first CD of original Davis material to be released in North America and a good glimpse into the 31-year-old legend's current direction, "soul electrica"--a soul-driven sound that helped launch England's thriving speed-garage scene.
Like many local beat merchants, Davis was turned on to the early sounds of house by Farley "Jackmaster" Funk and the Hot Mix Five, a group of DJs who pumped out deep grooves on WBMX FM ("the Black Music Experience") in the mid-80s. He listened to the broadcasts from his parents' home in south suburban University Park, where, unbeknownst to him, he lived right down the street from another important Chicago house figure, DJ Pierre. "He was dating my sister at the time," says Davis. "A buddy of mine told me about this guy and took me over to his house. I didn't know it was him."
In Pierre's garage, the teenage Davis witnessed firsthand the birth of acid house. Pierre--known to his mother as Nathaniel Jones--would soon form a group called Phuture with fellow producers Earl "Spanky" Smith and Herb Jackson. They recorded a new track using a quaint but key bit of technology: the Roland TB-303, a rudimentary bass synthesizer with a pitch shifter. They took a tape to the Music Box, the club where Ron Hardy was spinning a mix of disco, European electronica, industrial, and tape manipulation that was expanding the audience for house--a predominantly gay crowd--to include straight black south-siders. He played Phuture's tape, which rapidly gained popularity, and by 1987 the premier Chicago house label Trax had released it as the 12-inch "Acid Trax." Though the group had no idea at the time, the 12-inch soon crossed the Atlantic, where its slow hard beats and writhing rubbery bass lines were appropriated by the founding fathers of rave culture.
Meanwhile, an inspired Davis began making music of his own, recording his first single, "20 Below," at age 15 and eventually releasing it, with Pierre's help, on a label called Jack Trax. He graduated from high school in 1988 and enrolled at Joliet Junior College to study electronics, but music increasingly distracted him from his studies. In 1991 he formed a soulful house group called Umosia, which released singles on big dance labels like Big Beat and Nervous. When Jackson left Phuture to get married, Pierre invited Davis to join; in 1992 they released "Rise From Your Grave" on the influential New York dance indie Strictly Rhythm, early home to Todd Terry, Little Louie Vega, and Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez.
That same year Pierre left the group, moving to New York to kick off a successful solo career. He got a job doing A and R for Strictly Rhythm, and when Davis followed him a little later, the label hired him too. In 1994, feeling that he'd sufficiently established himself as a national name, Davis returned to Chicago and began focusing on his own work, producing tracks that drew generously on classic soul, with more emphasis on vocals and melody. Part of the reason for the shift was that he had something he wanted to say: he'd been raised as a "god-fearing child, going to church every week," and he'd gradually been investing more in his faith.
In 1995 he was introduced to New York jazz trumpeter Peven Everett by a mutual friend who thought they should collaborate. A child prodigy who'd played with Betty Carter, Roy Hargrove, and Branford Marsalis as a teenager, Everett turned out to be from Harvey, another south Chicago suburb, and Everett came home for the sessions. "I heard him as a trumpet player first," says Davis. "Then one day I was messing around on a keyboard and he said he could play the keys, too." But in the end Everett's main contribution to the project was his singing, which is heavily indebted to Prince. "Gabrielle," a track they released in 1996 on the local Large label, was a British club smash, and is now considered an early classic of the speed-garage movement. The sound was miles removed from Phuture's stark instrumental minimalism; it was repetitive but relatively lush, with a twitchy beat, keyboards, horns, and a full set of lyrics that reflected Davis's reinvigorated spirituality: "He had good news, good news, good news / For those dedicating their lives / To the spirit, spirit, spirit."
In 1996, Davis quit Phuture. "I couldn't take it anymore," he says. "I didn't want to change Phuture's sound. I wanted it to stay the way it was, but I knew as a producer my sound had changed. That's why I departed. My parents could not stand that Phuture sound--they said, 'C'mon, can't you do your own thing? That's what we like.' I've always had a soul sound. I just didn't have the courage to sing until Peven came along. We were in the studio one day and he said, 'Hey, man, why don't you sing this backup real quick?' I was like, 'OK, why not?' and from then on I've been singing."
Davis recorded other material with Everett on vocals, including crowd-pleasing singles like "Someday," "Don't You Dare Stop Lovin'," and "Watch Them Come," but the bulk of the new CD showcases Davis's own quivering falsetto. He's obviously striving for the creamy ease of Curtis Mayfield, and although he doesn't have that caliber of pipes, he's not bad. On many tracks he plays most of the instruments himself, including keyboards, guitar, and bass.
He's also taken more control of his music in a financial sense: most of the songs were originally released on his own Undaground Therapy label in 1999 and 2000. He had started the imprint after Large licensed "Gabrielle" to the British label XL, which subsequently licensed it to other labels for mix CDs and compilations. The further down the line the rights went, Davis realized, the longer it took for the money to get back to him. Now he handles all licenses directly--he owns the rights to everything on Traxx From the Nile.
Thanks to Davis's relationship with Bombay, which is distributed in the States by Caroline, his label now has its own distribution deal with the company. Next year Davis hopes to take full advantage of it with four separate album projects--the first of which will be a new mix CD--and a steady stream of singles by him and other producers. In addition to doing remix work for artists like Gus Gus, Eric Benet & Faith Evans, and Mary J. Blige, he's also contributing music to the sound track of a sequel to the Wesley Snipes vampire flick Blade. He also hopes to perform in Chicago before the year ends.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.