It may well be that the ‘80s have been tilled mercilessly in recent years, the realms of nostalgia being mercilessly exhausted by means of systematic exploitation. Is there really anything more that can be said on the subject of faux-New Wave fashion and electro imagery? I don’t think I’m alone in my skepticism on this subject.
And in all honesty, you have every reason to be skeptical of me when I say that this time, with Armand Van Helden, it’s different. This isn’t just another R&B ingenue or corporate rock hooligan pulling on the 1980s like a suit of clothes, putting out a single in the style of some half-forgotten one-hit-wonder to capitalize on accumulated cultural familiarity among those too young to remember just exactly what they’re feeling nostalgic for. Honestly, Ghettoblaster is clever enough that I’m surprised no one has ever thought of this before, even if, at the same time, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Armand Van Helden having the cajones to pull it off.
Let’s start at the beginning: the 1980s was the crucible of modern dance music. Oh, I hear you protest, there was dance music before 1980—what about all the folks like Kraftwerk and James Brown and Georgio Moroder and George Clinton… well, they were all important, to be sure. But something happened in the 1980s, something that took the accumulation of these disparate and slightly abstruse influences and cooked them together in just such a manner as to create something entirely different. On December 31st, 1979, there was no such thing as house music, not exactly, but by January 1st 1990 house music—along with it’s spiritual cousin hip-hop—had spread across the planet and gone a good ways toward conquering the world. House music was never quite as popular in the United States as it would prove to be just about everywhere else, but it was born here, nurtured in the cultural polyglot of the Five Boroughs circa 1980 and spread outwards through Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and the world at large.
Ghettoblaster isn’t just an homage to a specific sound or style, it’s a love letter to an entire era. Armand Van Helden was there. There was a time when you could walk into a club in New York and hear the Jimmy Castor Bunch alongside Depeche Mode alongside Afrika Bambaataa—and all these sounds coexisted in relative amity, thriving in a club scene that had gone underground in the wake of the disco backlash, hardly forgetting the heyday of Club 54 and Casablanca records but becoming, at the same time, far more inclusive. It’s hard not to speak of these early days of house music in cheerily utopian terms, but it’s an unavoidable impulse: black, white, gay and hispanic, punk, funk, hip-hop and salsa, all contributed on pretty much equal terms to the early days of New York dance culture. Nowadays this kind of cross-cultural parity is rare enough to be a significant exception when it occurs.
The album opens up with “Go Crazy!” featuring Majida, as good an example of vintage freestyle as has been heard in a long time—you half expect to see Jellybean Benitez on the album credits, or at the very least a Shannon cameo. Tracks like “I Want Your Soul” and “Still In Love” continue with the freestyle tip. Fat Joe swings by for “Touch Your Toes”, a cheerily self-deprecating exercise in the long-forgotten charms of hip-house, going back to the vintage days of the Jungle Brothers and Rob Base and DJ Easy Rock (don’t tell me you don’t remember “It Takes Two”). (And don’t tell me you don’t get the irony of Fat Joe telling people to touch their toes—I know he’s lost weight, but still.) Roxy Cottontail steals the show on “Playmate”, spewing dirty raps over a proto-rave breakbeat that brings to mind the aforementioned Rob Base as well as the likes of “Mr. Kirk’s Nightmare”. After scene-stealing cameos on this album, Spank Rock’s Yoyoyoyoyo and Aaron LaCrate’s BMore Gutter Music mix, Cottontail has built up quite a tidy spot of anticipation for her forthcoming solo debut, supposedly out later this year.
As the album proceeds the disparate threads seem to come together, weaving the sounds of freestyle, new wave (check out those vintage Yaz keyboards throughout the disc), hip-hop and salsa together again to reinvent the crucial chemistry of house. “To Be a Freak” emerges cannily from the confluence of so many different ideas, a slab of vintage Chicago acid that could easily have stepped off a vintage Mr. Fingers dubplate. At some point, all the separate elements congeal, and the result is, while not perhaps markedly different from the constituents that preceded it, definitively house. Ghettoblaster closes with “A Track Called Jack”, and it really could not be a more perfect note on which to go out. From the building blocks to the pinnacle of early house, from the Paradise Garage on through Detroit and Chicago and Manchester, it’s a long trip with one destination, one purpose:
You will jack. You will jack all night.