The first time I heard Dego’s main project 4 Hero was via a two-cassette promotional pre-release of Two Pages, the group’s sweeping vision of the future of dance music for this solar system and any other within earshot. One cassette was a freaky-deaky collection of spaced-out drum and bass ornamented with samples, bleeps and a monstrous low end that could only be contained by those satellite dishes built into dormant volcanic craters. In case the “Star Trek” samples didn’t make the message clear, 4 Hero were out to aurally question our existence as singular beings in the universe. Message received, almost too loud and clear. The other tape was a much more earthly affair, with its frenetic standup bass weaving around a broken beat that skipped like flat stones on a glassy lake, all while velvet-voiced divas such as Philadelphia’s spoken-word queen Ursula Rucker purred poetry and melodies. The mix of jazz standards and forward-thinking beat innovation is nearly the norm in house music now, but way back in the late 20th century it was a revolution in chilling things out without cooling them off. The released product turned out to be one CD with the spacey and jazzy bits mixed together so that neither was received in one fell swoop. It would have been better to keep them separated—when two vibes go to war, there’s really no way to settle the score.
That’s the (enter your personal slant here) strength/weakness of dance music: it’s all about the vibe because the vibe is what it’s all about. See, it’s circular, just like a good DJ set. When Dego played to a packed midweek house in downtown Manhattan, he was on a mission. He just wasn’t sure which mission he was on.
It was clear from the start that those on hand wouldn’t be treated to a called-in set of golden oldies—Dego’s latest broken beat innovations made sure of that. It’s a strange beast, this new beat. At first blink it seemed all over the place, a fumbling procession of thumps like an arrhythmic heartbeat, a high-low amalgamation of electronic ear-shatterers meant to keep its listeners perpetually on edge (or, as the case may be, on their toes). And yet, all these quick stabs fit perfectly into standard 4/4 time. It seemed shockingly new at first, but made perfect sense in the end: this is the urban tribal rhythm. It is what’s been appropriated from native dance traditions around the world forever, but this latest version is a Kraftwerkian empty shell of an interpretation, appropriated first from street performers banging their own urban rhythms on plastic paint barrels and steel trash cans. It’s so far removed from the original product that it’s almost all the way back around. Almost.
Dego threw divas, soul masters, tribal chanters—all sorts of melody makers into the beaty mix, but none of it ever quite converged. It was mixed well enough that you could see where he’s going with it, but he wasn’t there yet. At times the beat became so unnerving in its cacaphony and volume that as the soundtrack for marines fleshing out sequestered Central American dictators.
In a dance club where participation can make or break the evening, these broken beats were breaking things up in more ways than one. Many in the crowd decided it was more a set for listening than participating. A disturbing number of those who braved the dance floor anyway seemed to come from places where rhythm was not only a foreign concept, but a concept for which there was no literal translation. Hands flailed, legs kicked, heads ducked—it wasn’t pretty.
There were no translation problems for opener DJ Ender from NuSpirit Helsinki, a Gus Gus-esque collective of DJs, musicians and artists from Finland who have decided that there’s strength in numbers when one’s home country is not traditionally on the world dance map. Ender borrowed little from that collective’s jazzy-lounge vibe for his soul- and disco-heavy set. Like Dego, he mixed all manner of divas, soul classics and worldly melodies. It was that retro-nuevo sound that’s all the rage these days, and for good reason: it expands the boundaries of dance music in a nearly organic way without messing up the vibe. Yet, with all these DJs claiming the entire world as their dance-floor oyster, it’s good to know that there are still DJs like Dego who are pushing the boundaries, even if occasionally the boundaries aren’t ready to be pushed quite yet.