When the promo for GU10 arrived in my mailbox, I was struck with a peculiar and unpleasant feeling, the sudden and inescapable sensation of growing old. Has it really been 10 years since the first Global Underground release? 10 years of bloated double-disc trance and progressive house mixes? 10 years of album covers featuring photographs of anemic DJs looking slightly bored against exotic backdrops from across the world? 10 years of the Superstar DJ as cultural institution?
As easy as it might be to parody the intent and execution of the Global Underground brand, there’s a very good reason why these elements have become so intimately familiar as to be easily pilloried: Global Underground has been an incredible success. They were the first company to put the DJ’s face upfront. For everyone who ever criticized electronic dance music for being a purposefully anonymous and passionless exercise, Global Underground was dedicated to the idea that this was not only a patently false notion, but an offensive one as well (as for those DJs who were anonymous and passionless on purpose, well, it doesn’t make any sense to me either). A good DJ could possess distinctive and recognizable style, and something so seemingly unobtrusive as merely playing records could very well be a form of artistic expression just like any other. By making such a clear connection between the men (sorry, it is mostly men; most of dance music is still regrettably a boys’ club) and the music they played, the label helped to further the cause of electronic music in the culture at large. Although it’s still mostly an underground concern, you can walk into any Best Buy or Circuit City around the country and find the latest Global Underground mix. This is certainly progress, of a sort.
But Global Underground as both a label and an ethos isn’t quite what it used to be. Part of the problem is that in contributing to the perception of DJs as celebrities in their own right, the label contributed to the forces of its own decline. DJs who were already significantly well-known before their contributions to the series—folks like Paul Oakenfold, Sasha, John Digweed, and Danny Tenaglia—were able to use the series’ increased, international visibility for their own benefit, contributing mixes and leaving on their own successful endeavors. Similarly, less well-known DJs who contributed to the brand—Dave Seaman, Darren Emerson (fresh from Underworld) and James Lavelle (who also records as UNKLE)—used the exposure to craft credible solo careers on an international scale. By building their brand on the strength of individual DJs, Global Underground helped pave the way for the next step in dance music, when DJs could build brands around themselves without the help of any intermediary.
And sure enough, the release of this tenth anniversary package finds the label at an interesting juncture. It’s been a while since any release in the Global Underground series really caused much of a stir. James Lavelle’s two excellent mixes revamped the sound in the early part of this decade by moving the label away from the progressive house with which it had become almost fatally identified. But embracing a more eclectic style also left Global Underground without much of a sonic identity—for better or for worse, the big swooshing progressive house sound was the Global Underground sound, occasional house mixes from the likes of Tenaglia and Deep Dish notwithstanding. The label’s most important releases in recent years have not been mix albums in the Global Underground series but individual, artist-oriented albums by Sasha, as well as the long-awaited domestic release of UNKLE’s Never Never Land. As the focus has shifted, the distinctive brand has faded.
So while the three discs here present a serviceable cross-section of the music on which the label rose to prominence, the results are also strangely anonymous. No credits are given for the three mixes. Although they are all competently executed, they are also perfunctory. Perhaps it’s psychological? Without any knowledge of the mixes’ authors, they seem rootless and ill-defined. Also, the stated intent of picking representative tracks from throughout the label’s history seems to serve as a kind of wet blanket: there’s just not a lot of real spontaneity or energy, of the kind you would expect from an especially vivid Global Underground mix. Sure, there’s not a bad track here—everyone loves Underworld’s “Two Months Off” and Miss Kitten and the Hacker’s “Frank Sinatra”, and there’s no complaining about lesser known tracks from the likes of Jark Prongo, Billy Ray Martin, Ian Brown (yes, that Ian Brown), Breeder, Danny Tenaglia . . . really, there’s a lot of good stuff here. But if you’ve been following Global Underground for any amount of time, chances are you’ve already heard these tracks used by better DJs in a much more convincing context. Why not simply include the tracks by themselves, instead of saddling them with a perfunctory mix?
The third disc is slightly more interesting, in that it presents a selection of tracks from the eight years prior to Global Underground’s formation, 1987-1995. There’s some stylistic crossover with last year’s essential Renaissance Tenth Anniversary set, but this disc conjures up a pile of lesser-known and ill-remembered tracks for a relatively fresh history lesson. Slam’s “Eterna” is probably the most famous track on here, but there are also gems from the likes of LFO, Sasha and the Salt Lake City Orchestra in addition to names you might not remember like Slacker, Uncle Bob and the Phurry Freaks.
But even with the historical element, this is still a strangely emaciated collection. Electronic music usually does a better-than-average job when it comes to anthologizing their labels. Just off the top of my head I can remember excellent anniversary sets from !K7, Novamute, Warp (who released a massive six disc set to celebrate their tenth anniversary), Compost, Hefty, Ninja Tune . . . I’m sure I’m forgetting someone. Unfortunately it makes perfect sense that Global Underground, despite their unquestioned significance as an institution in the recent history of dance music, would be unable to succinctly distill what makes their sound so important. More than merely the sum of the individual tracks that compose their mixes, the Global Underground brand is built on the charisma of the DJs who make them. You can certainly make an argument that folks like John Digweed and Darren Emerson don’t have much going for them in the charisma department to begin with, but the understated studiousness that they project is as much a part of the Global Underground brand as anything else. Subtract the famous faces and Global Underground is left with not a whole heck of a lot.