It’s hard to imagine a more venerable institution in electronic music history than !K7’s DJ Kicks series. As the series approaches its tenth anniversary, it has become conceivable to chart the form’s growth and evolution through the series’ expansive worldview and intrinsically eclectic scope. From the halcyon days of Detroit and Chicago on through the advent of drum ‘n’ bass, trip-hop and acid jazz, with forays into the more mainstream realms of house, hip-hop and R&B, DJ Kicks has illustrated a pleasingly aristocratic alternative history wherein the likes of Global Underground never existed.
Although in general the series presents an excellent primer to electronic music history, there are always peaks and valleys. The Truby Trio’s magnificent, genre-defining disc was followed by Vikter Duplaix’s endearingly flawed compilation. For every Kruder & Dorfmeister there’s a Tiga. Chicken Lips’ disc manages to wedge itself cleanly into the middle of the bell-curve, less a home run than a solid double.
Those expecting the group’s trademark funky breaks-house mixture will come away sorely disappointed. The disc is less an exploration of Chicken Lips’ current musical interests than a guided tour through their inspirations and antecedents. Those with the patience for a virtual history lesson will find their efforts rewarded.
Those music aficionados who specialize in unearthing the rare and the obscure find their senses becoming more and more highly attuned to the modest virtues of their individual quarries. I have a friend who specializes in ‘60s garage rock—he’s a connoisseur of the Nuggets boxes, in addition to the various Pebbles, Boulders, and Gravel spin-offs. He’s heard so much of the stuff that he greedily enthuses the modest virtues of the most modestly talented bands to ever press a 45. He’s happy to spend all day listening to bands that sound like absolute crap to an uneducated ear. It’s a process of diminishing returns: the more you hear, the more modest your expectations have to become in order to not become disillusioned.
I think the same process can be discerned in the world of old school dance. There are thousands and thousands of disco songs, and of these thousands there are probably a few dozen—maybe a hundred—still in circulation in any consistent basis. The truly great disco songs have been mostly exhumed by now, saved from the ashbin of history and the poisonous anti-disco backlash of the late ‘70s and ‘80s. The ‘90s saw a number of previously forgotten classics unearthed and repressed for an audience of eager audiophiles. As we entered the ‘00s, consensus grew that the seemingly endless stream of old school breaks and samples might someday run dry like so much fossil fuel.
For these reasons, Chicken Lips’ DJ Kicks is ultimately a frustrating experience. There are some really good tracks, such as the legendary Larry Levan’s remix of Gwen Guthrie’s “Seventh Heaven”, in addition to Chicken Lips’ three contributions. However, there are also any number of tracks that neither excite nor disappoint, but merely sit there—flopping about in the mix for no real reason. These tracks are deeply mediocre, and unfortunately the majority of the album’s tracks fall along these lines. It picks up around the final third, but it’s still an inconsistent pleasure.
One is tempted to infer that the purpose of this mix is less to create an enduring and captivating mix than to show off their record collection. I will refrain from making such an accusation, because it occurs to me that the Chicken Lips are probably so deeply immersed into their musical world that they are unable to objectively separate the wheat from the chaff—or, more accurately, the honestly compelling tracks from those songs which are less accessible to a more general audience. To an aficionado of old school disco and funk, this album will probably be a revelation. To someone with a more general acquaintance with said genres, this album will be a series of highlights surrounded by damningly inconsistent filler.