It’s the curse of the innovator. No matter how far ahead of the time your creations are, sooner or later the rest of the world is going to catch up. People are going to take your innovations and add innovations to them, perfect them, and render them obsolete. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to re-invent yourself and stay with the times. Most likely, you won’t, or won’t want to. No one will ever be able to take your original, groundbreaking work away from you. But they will be able to stow it away in museums and textbooks, where it can be admired but rarely, if ever, interacted with.
This phenomenon, this curse, applies very readily to popular music. What makes the innovations of artists like James Brown, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles so special and rare is they can still be enjoyed on a purely visceral level. In a far more prevalent sort of instance, give an old Throbbing Gristle album a spin. You’ll be able to hear how it staked out new territory and influenced a generation or two of knob-twiddling musicians. And then you’ll want to turn it off, and never listen to it again. Heck, there’s no way to deny the pioneering nature of early hip-hop. But can you honestly listen to “Rapper’s Delight” or “Radio” in 2008 without a chuckle and a grimace?
Robert Hood is one of those innovators you may not have heard of, especially if you’re not a serious electronic music fanatic. Coming out of Detroit in the early 1990s, Hood is recognized as the chief pioneer of the “minimal” style. As a DJ, solo artist, and part of various projects, he’s devoted his career to stripping house and techno to their most basic elements, literally attempting to make a science of it. Now, after 15 years in the shadows, he’s decided to reach out to the relatively large, mainstream audience of London label/nightclub Fabric’s popular mix series. For Fabric 39 he’s jammed bits of 32 tracks into a single disc-long mix, focusing mostly on the years 2000-05, but including a few more recent tracks and some “classics” too. With Hood himself supplying a fair amount of the material, Fabric 39 is meant to be a victory lap of sorts. But, while there’s no denying the man’s focus and vision, there’s no escaping the fact that the victory occurred over a decade ago. In other words, you can marvel at how forward-thinking Hood’s aesthetic was, and then file Fabric 39 right next to that old Throbbing Gristle.
Jacob Wright of techno music webzine Resident Advisor recently offered a succinct description of the problem with Fabric 39 in 2008: “Today when we think minimal, we think just beats, but what Hood thinks is repetition.” Sure enough, 32 tracks and all, the mix plays more-or-less like one big, long, homogeneous cut. Take a fast, hard electronic pulse, add interlocking percussion effects, and let alone. Or, transition to the next track before much else has a chance to happen.
Hood starts things off coyly, using the first of several “Element” tracks to lay out what he’s all about. There’s the driving rhythm, stuttering synth line, and even a bit of old-school “Hoover techno” whir. And a few of those 32 gasps are worth noting. Fab G’s “Bust the Vibes” gets some filtered funk going, and actually has a blowup. Fellow Detroit product Jeff Mills’ “Skin Deep” pulsates like there’s no tomorrow. Maybe not coincidentally, both tracks are among the evergreens here, dating to 1999. Further down the line, the moan-like vocal snippets of UK Gold’s “Agent Wood” are literally a breath of fresh air. Too bad you have to wait until track 26 to get to them.
About a quarter of the material comes from Hood’s current label, Belgian imprint Music Man/N.E.W.S.. Consequently, you get most of Hood’s Hoodmusic series from the last few years. Or, rather, you get snippets of it. The best of these tracks is “Side Effect”. It’s truly bizarre, full of pseudo-industrial scraping effects and what sounds like an insect twittering through it. Perhaps sensing its arresting nature, Hood lets it sink in over a full four minutes. Only one of Hood’s tracks, the discofied “The Greatest Dancer”, is from his famed ‘90s days with his M-Plant label.
A comprehensive CD retrospective of Hood’s work has yet to be released, and may never be, due to the variety of labels he’s recorded for. So, while Fabric 39 is as close as you can come, it still doesn’t serve that purpose. What is its purpose, then, other than to get Hood’s name circulating among broader circles? Well, its hard rhythms, repetition, and lack of dynamics probably would go over better on a dance floor. Fabric 39 probably gives you a good sense of what Hood can do behind the decks. Whether this deliberate look backwards is ultimately what an already-stagnating electronica scene really needs is for you to decide.