A Western Campfire Tale, by "Ol' Gabby" the Cook
Gather ‘round, young’uns, and heark to the tale I tell. It’s not a tall tale, nor yet a long one—it’s a story called “Seventy Minutes of Madness,” and it goes kinda like this: They tell of a mix CD made six or seven years ago. . . .
You have to understand that that’s pretty much the dawn of time in techno terms—hell, they were using fireflies for stagelights and woodpeckers’ beaks for needles. But some there were that had gained some measure of fame nonetheless—most of them English, basically. And with good reason: that cold European island wasn’t first out the gate, but they did it best and most, and they rocked many funky druidic celebrations.
Now, the ones I’m talkin’ about are two galoots what they call Coldcut. (Their mommas named ‘em Jonathan Moore and Matthew Black, but that don’t hold no water with me.) They were the first Englishmen to build a completely sample-based record way back in 1987, and they had been in this game for about an eon by the time 1996 rolled ‘round like a wagon wheel. They’d released a whole pile of singles and four albums and they were doing remixes for the likes of Eric B. and Rakim (two fine damn sheriffs, those) and Ofra Haza, and they had invented a whole alter ego named DJ Food and they were pretty near stars on the scene. So along comes a little label called “Journeys by DJ” and asks ‘em to put together a mix CD.
What’s a mix CD? Damnation, you young whippersnappers hain’t received no kinda education in that one-room schoolhouse! A dance mix CD tries to recreate the sorts of musical experience you might have in a club: slammin’ tunes melting into slammin’ tunes and so on and so forth. The music doesn’t have to be actually “original” or anything—in fact, it’s better if it ain’t. All it has to do is make your britches move. Which, given time and the kinds of records these DJ fellas have, any of us could do, just not as well.
See, I had this all explained to me by a DJ acquaintance of mine name o’ J-Black when I was very small. He talked to me about how this tradition flows from the Jamaican culture, and the role of what they call the “Selector”: picking the right records, at exactly the right time, to move the crowd in the right way. He was blatherin’ all this theory at me, talkin’ about Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc and all them, and I finally just challenged him, “Put up or shut up, varmint!” So he plays me three of his mix CDs . . . and then suddenly I understood. So it’s really something you cain’t get in all your book-larnin’ anyway.
But then when I got to hear this disc by Coldcut—oh, yar, I sure enough did. Seems like a million years ago now that I was completely flummoxed and bewildered by that disc. Y’see, it basically just rewrote the rules of the game. It started out just like all the other stuff back then, some voice samples over ambient noises morphing into drum’n'bass stuff, pretty standard, and I thought it was going to be more like 70 Minutes of Sameness—but the samples didn’t stop! They just kept layering stuff over the top: an old kung fu movie here, some weirdness about “unclean spirits” there—I even picked out some George-Saunders-as-Shere-Khan samples from The Jungle Book. Since that was the first movie I ever saw, I was hooked from the get. That was my first indication that this was something special.
My second indication? Every single musical track on the whole damned thing. That thing rocketed back and forth between just about everything you can figure. They tossed in some Roni Size beats from New Forms and then dropped Junior Reid’s ragga classic “One Blood” over it, which made the most perfect sense ever; they knew just when to turn that into a dubbed-out version of “Jam On It” by Newcleus; they knew how to jerk that into a very wild hardglitch workout by Two Player (gee, I guess Squarepusher’s last record wasn’t so radical after all). . . . It was all jammed up on itself and lovely. We couldn’t stop spinning it in the bunkhouse after chores were done.
One of the things I remember most intensely about that CD was how Coldcut was willing to sacrifice flow for diversity. This is not the most seamless mix you’ll ever hear in terms of tempo. It would slow down on a moment’s notice, stay that way for a one-minute track or two, and then boom, there it was back at 120 bpm again. But somehow you didn’t feel jerked around by it—probably because there were at least two or three sounds continuing on at every transition, joining everything together like the stitching on a good pair of Levis.
And it wasn’t just the James Brown voice snippets and Jello Biafra anti-America spoken-word bits, either—they’d start introducing a new record just as soon as the last one registered. They packed 35 different “tracks” on that CD, but it was really more like hundreds: abstract and ambient stuff like Plastikman and Harold Budd and Photek were considered equal partners with Mantronik and Queen Latifah and Masters at Work. Which is also not to say that they didn’t know when to just let things spin: Boogie Down Productions’ “The Bridge Is Over” got to spin for almost three minutes, Shan- and Marley-dissing lyrics intact; but it was sped up for tempo (KRS sounded like he was on helium), and it was remixed with ambient keyboard washes and birdish squeaks . . . really quite crucial.
Look, a disc like that can’t really be described, except to say that it was probably the greatest mix disc ever (many apologies to my man J-Black) . . . and it disappeared soon thereafter and no one could find it, except for lots of money on eBay. We will never see its like again. Let’s all sing that old cowboy mourning song together—what? Journeys by DJ just reissued it? It’s available again? Well, hot diggety damn, why didn’t y’all say so? Let’s saddle up and go to the general store!
// Notes from the Road
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