By Michaelangelo Matos
Kids these days can't sit still--and neither can their music. Look what's happened to the stodgiest of electronic-dance styles, house. Used to be that once house producers had a groove established, it stayed in place, for four, five, six, seven minutes at a time. Sure, they'd monkey with it--one strain, acid house, was built on sounds made by constantly playing with the pitch shifters of an outmoded analog synthesizer, the Roland TB-303. But house tracks--even underground, "experimental" ones--mostly tended to stay a recognizable course: once you heard what was on top at the beginning of the tune (and I mean at the beginning of the tune--most house tracks open and close with a minute or so of pure beat, in deference to their function as DJ tools), you could pick it out all the way through.
But in the past few years--as with R & B, the music whose upscale aspirations house most often emulates--some seriously, gratifyingly weird shit has been flying out of the laboratory. What's more, it's actually attracting attention, putting asses in seats and moving units. London has witnessed the delirious boom of speed garage (house infused with jungle) and the subsequent emergence of twitchy, hypersyncopated two-step garage--more a variant on Timbaland's itchy-feet production style than a continuation of house's straight four-four. But the most visible exponents of the new house are Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton, a pair of south Londoners who call themselves Basement Jaxx.
Beginning in the mid-90s by emulating the disco-flavored, cavernous deep house of Chicago-based giants like DJ Sneak and Gene Farris, they soon hit upon a signature style of their own. Their aesthetic has as much to do with dub as house: though all electronic-dance styles rely on studio expertise, Basement Jaxx make true mixing-board music, where the rhythm carries the day and the top elements continuously shift. Even their least restless tracks have a lot going on: take, for example, a straightforward stomper like 1997's "Set Yo Body Free"--collected, along with 11 other early Jaxx-produced classics, like the R & B-flavored "Fly Life" and the Brazilian-inflected "Belo Horizonti" (released under the name the Heartists), on last year's superb Atlantic Jaxx: A Compilation. Built around a rough-sounding Vocoderized recitation of the song's title, "Body" moves through a wide variety of filtered noise and weird, theremin-like keyboard parts before climaxing with a smashup of frantic shouts of "Basement Jaxx! Basement Jaxx!" It sounds like the score to one joyous last apocalyptic disco.
This may be the strongest thread connecting Basement Jaxx to American artists like Timbaland and Busta Rhymes: even at their most laid-back, the Jaxx sound as if they're scrambling to encode as much information as they can before the computers go permanently on the blink. In fact, their music can often be too dense to grasp immediately: it took me several listens just to acclimate to the brand-new Remedy, much less assess it. On "Rendez-Vu," the opening track, the vocal hook--"I've got you in my heart, I've got you in my he-e-ead"--emanates from a garrulous robot chorus to ride a Latin-flavored beat and galloping Spanish-guitar strum. A synthesized string arrangement, sometimes knife-edge tense and sometimes wiggy and psychedelic, provides the backdrop. About four minutes in, an ostinato played on what sound like synthesized woodwinds bubbles out of the background for a few bars, then disappears forever; a completely different three-note woodwind motif ends the track.
Yet "Red Alert," a song that sounds like a response to Propellerheads' hit from last year, "History Repeating," has actually made it onto Top 40 radio. "History Repeating" was a tad heavy-handed: with its guest vocal by Shirley Bassey (best known for the theme to the James Bond classic Goldfinger) it said, Look, we're bringing the past into the future, wink wink, nudge nudge. "Red Alert" doesn't fool with winks or nudges; it bombs the walls between past and future, taking an earthshaking, rough-and-dirty Bootsy Collins-style slap-bass riff and a background chant that evokes Uncle Jam's army and dropping them into an up-to-the-minute stew of house beats and studio textures. The breakdown samples and then stutters the vocal line ("Shake!" the singer commands, and then her voice does just that) before being overtaken by a baroque string section, which then stops like a tape deck being unplugged.
I don't know whether Remedy as a whole will meet with the same level of acceptance, though given Astralwerks's promotional diligence, I wouldn't be surprised if the album slowly went platinum, a la Fatboy Slim. But even if their success is short-lived, Basement Jaxx are in the unique position of embodying one of the most exciting scenes going right now--and hopefully they portend even more exciting mutations to come.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rafael Fuchs.