[2 September 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Purpose-built DJ mixes always present tough choices for their creators. Series like DJ Kicks, Fabric, and Balance give DJs the chance to tell the world what turns them on, not to mention show off their extensive record collections. But how to balance esoteric selections with a meaningful, coherent start-to-finish listening experience? That particular conundrum comes into relief on Motor City Drum Ensemble’s DJ Kicks entry.
Motor City Drum Ensemble hails not from Detroit but from Germany’s “Motor City”, Stuttgart, where Mercedes-Benz is headquartered. The name is the performance alias of one Danilo Plessow. Yet another “child prodigy” DJ, Plessow released his first single when he was 16. Now, still in his mid-‘20s, Plessow has become well known for his series of “Raw Cuts” releases, on which he showcased his style of sample-based, soul-influenced progressive house music.
Plessow’s bio tells of him stoking his passion for music by digging through the crates at the back of his local record shop, and his broad palette of tastes is on display on his DJ Kicks. Among the 22 tracks, he finds room for contemporary house and retro-minded soul and jazz. There’s some vintage Afrobeat here, some Chicago house there, and even room for a 1970s French soundtrack cut. But, surprisingly, given the scope of music on display, large stretches of the mix fall flat. It’s not so much that the tracks don’t hold together as they don’t hold your ear.
Things start off promisingly enough, with psych-jazz legend Sun Ra’s singers inviting you to “dare to knock at the door to the cosmos” before New Zealand retro-soul outfit Electric Wire Hustle soothe you with the Curtis Mayfield-like stylings of “Again”. By the time Rhythm & Sound’s dubby “Mango Drive” segues into the rhythmic Afrobeat of Tony Allen’s “Ariya”, you feel you’re in the midst of a chill-yet-thrilling ride down a particularly hip back alley. Those notions are only enhanced by the timeless, pneumatic bass-powered Chicago house of Mr. Fingers’ “The Juice”.
Then something strange happens. The mix gets marred in a series of indistinct house and vaguely Afro-sounding tracks that share the same half-hearted 4/4 beat and mild tempo. Chill turns to chilly soul on Motor City Drum Ensemble’s own “L.O.V.E.”, the clean detachment of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On without the vocal warmth and sincerity. Here, the leftfield selections seem more like namedropping than inspired choices. Philippe Sarde’s “Le Cortège Et Course” sounds like you would expect early-1970s French electronic soundtrack music to. It’s cold, blipping, and robotic, and just doesn’t fit in with what the rest of the mix is trying to do. Including a track from Loose Joints, one of the disco-era productions by now-trendy avant garde musician Arthur Russell? Nice idea. But the repeated whispering of the title of “Pop Your Funk” gets under your skin more than it moves your body. At least the chanted chorus and tribal percussion of Arts & Crafts’ “I’ve Been Searching”, another find from 1980, fares better.
Plessow even doles out a little Aphex Twin. Why? Who knows. But the latter-day track, “Actium”, has a jazzy electric piano that stands out. Richard James providing rustic authenticity? Well, it happens here. Recloose’s “Cardiology”, with its acid-funk bassline, is another nice choice. But Plessow can’t help but throw in one more non-sequitur, in the form of Finnish retro-jazz saxophonist Timo Lassy’s “African Rumble”. In terms of African-inflected jazz, suffice to say Lassy is no Art Blakey. Plessow brings it all back to funk with one more rare groove namedrop. The work of James Mason, a player in the groundbreaking jazz-funk combo Roy Ayers’ Ubiquity, has long been a holy grail for groove hunters. Plessow takes advantage of a recent reissue of Mason’s Rhythm of Life album by closing DJ Kicks with Mason’s signature “Sweet Power, Your Embrace”. It’s funky; it’s jazzy; it’s earthy. It’s what most of the preceding dozen tracks have been missing.
At least Plessow’s Motor City Drum Ensemble DJ Kicks doesn’t play it safe. But in attempting to wow us with his record collection, he risks losing our attention.