Basement Jaxx have surely obtained a convert. I’ve never been a fan of electronica, but after the Basement Jaxx show, I have been struck by a new appreciation for the music. But regardless of my perceptions of the show after the fact, before I had the experience (and it was an experience more so than anything else) I was not sure where I stood on my ability to understand the music and culture that has captivated so many of my generation. So when I accepted the invitation to cover the Basement Jaxx concert at the 9:30 Club in Washington DC, it was with certain misgivings. Who am I to judge a show by a band I’ve never listened to which operates in a musical genre in which I have no reference? Fortunately for the rest of the techno-phobes out there I have gone to the dark side and come back. And my opinion on the music, the culture and the experience is that, at the very least, Basement Jaxx are the purveyors of something ancient, something new and something badly needed in a world that has been deprived of the beauty of ritualistic performances.
First rule of this article: The performance and shared experience of electronica is not only helpful in gaining an appreciation for this type of music, for those of us clinging to rock and roll it is decidedly essential.
Ugly Duckling, a hip-hop group from California opened for Basement Jaxx. They were vaguely appealing, though I think most of that has to do with the goofiness of their set and the whiteness of their skin. The highlight of their performance was when one of the MC’s started making fun of hardcore/gangsta rappers and their postures, while the DJ played the Michael Jackson standard “Bad”. But all in all, these guys were boring and uninspired. My hopes for the evening began to sink.
After the boring Ugly Duckling set, Basement Jaxx made their appearance. The music was not mind blowing in of itself, but it captivated me when incorporated with the atmosphere that Basement Jaxx provided for the crowd. There were flashing clips from movies and commercials on the back wall, interspersed with pieces of graffiti and art. Dancers and singers ranging from good to horrible jumped on and off the stage. All of these things contributed to the idea that had been forming in my head about the meaning of all this craziness surrounding electronic music. But it wasn’t until one of the members from Basement Jaxx jumped out from behind the mixing boards and started screaming and dancing with one of the dancers that the inkling of an idea turned into a full-fledged philosophy if not for all of techno than at least for Basement Jaxx: namely, these guys are descendents from a primitive form of music and ritual, the tribal gathering. Basement Jaxx are in all respects shamans, whipping the crowd into an ecstatic (not meaning that goddam white pill that everyone seems to need today) frenzy, calming them down and riling them back up again. This is what interests me because it seems like a ritualistic approach to this type of music is a perfect compliment to this type of music. It is based primarily on repetitive beats with other noises/music thrown in, while the crowd dances until they cannot stand. This type of music and the people who perform it are basically doing the same thing Native American shamans did to warriors before battle. With the dancers on stage rolling their eyes back in their heads, running around like their head is full of acid, and collapsing on the stage with the look of sheer exhaustion hanging around their heads, Basement Jaxx took on the role of leading this group of children looking for something that has been lost in the Judeo-Christian world.
Basement Jaxx are on to something here. Something primal, something lost, something badly needed in this highly mechanized modern world. I doubt they have a full understanding of what they are giving the world, but regardless of their knowledge, it’s a gift so precious that no one should turn down. They are connecting us with our primal past. They are pushing us back out to the borders and daring us to stay for the ride. They are attacking the cave wall and instead of simply drawing on it, they are banging an abstract engraving on it with their heads. And the irony of it all is that while they are pushing us back to a time when we looked for shamans to answer our questions about the world, they are doing it with the modern marvels that we all dream about. Basement Jaxx are destroying the boundaries between primal and modern by harkening back to the cave days with synthesizers and processor.
Many of my previous conceptions of electronica were misinterpreted. I listen to folk music because I want to hear the words, but this is the wrong way to approach Basement Jaxx. Electronica needs to be seen, felt and experienced. It is not enough to simply listen to the music—one has to be within the experience. It’s a communal music, and Basement Jaxx act as the leaders of this gathering. They lead the way, they highlight the path, but the listener does the traveling. They can only show us where to go, but once we go there we understand the beauty of the music. It is simplistic and repetitive, but so is meditation and the rewards of both are a serious journey into our own primal roots.
The performance that Basement Jaxx put on was inspired. The atmosphere that they provided was mind-blowing. The music was less than wonderful, but when mixed with the ritualistic/tribal feel that the concert had, it was perfect. If Basement Jaxx come to your town, do yourself a favor and pick up a ticket. Because this is the closest to being primal we will ever get in the civilized world. This is about seeing firsthand the power of music and the hypnotic effect of being fully drawn into a world you cannot even begin to understand. We’re all trying to draw on cave-walls and leave our mark, but it appears Basement Jaxx are leading the revolution back to the cave.